4 more possible coronavirus cases as Ga. set to quarantine cruise passengers

34 Georgians, other Americans headed to Dobbins Air Reserve base, will be tested for coronavirus exposure

Sunday began and ended with coronavirus alerts from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.

More than two dozen Georgians aboard a cruise ship quarantined due to coronavirus will be transferred to an air reserve base in Marietta, the governor’s office announced a little after 9 a.m.

At 10:16 p.m. came word of four possible new cases.

“The Georgia Department of Public Health is awaiting confirmatory testing on four new presumptive positive tests for COVID-19 in Georgia residents,” the Sunday night news release said. “Testing was completed today at the Georgia Public Health Laboratory and the results have been submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for verification.”

Of the new cases, one patient is from Fulton County, another is from Cherokee County and two are from Cobb County, Kemp’s statement said.

“They have no connection to each other. All of the individuals are hospitalized, and the sources of their infections are not known,” the statement said. “With the addition of these four presumptive positive cases of COVID-19, there are now six presumptive positives pending confirmatory testing by CDC and five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Georgia.”

“In the days and weeks ahead, I encourage Georgians to pray for the patients affected by COVID-19 and their healthcare providers,” Kemp said in a statement. “We must continue to support one another, trust the advice of the medical community, and remain vigilant."

The Sunday morning announcement said 34 Georgia residents and an unspecified number of other people currently on the Grand Princess cruise ship will be “securely transferred” to Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

MORE: Where is Dobbins Air Reserve Base?

“These passengers will undergo testing and be quarantined for possible exposure to COVID-19,” Kemp said. “They are expected to arrive at Dobbins late Monday, March 9 or early Tuesday, March 10.”

The news that some quarantined passengers will be in Cobb County came just a day after state officials announced three new coronavirus cases in Georgia for a total of five confirmed cases in the state, with three of those in Fulton County. Officials also announced Saturday they were awaiting verification of another suspected case in Fulton in addition to one in Gwinnett.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The ship was prohibited from returning to its home port of San Francisco from a Feb. 21 voyage to Hawaii after two passengers who traveled on the cruise to Mexico last month contracted COVID-19.

RELATED: 4th possible coronavirus case reported in Fulton as Ga. numbers rise

One of the patients, an elderly man from Placer County in Northern California, died, marking the first death from coronavirus in California. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Wednesday after the passenger’s death.

RELATED:  Complete coverage of coronavirus in Georgia

The ship, which had as many as 3,000 people on board, was being held offshore near San Fransisco while crew and passengers showing symptoms were tested for the virus, AJC.com previously reported.

Credit: Taylor Bacon

Credit: Taylor Bacon

Vice President Mike Pence announced Friday that at least 21 people aboard, including 19 crew members, have tested positive for the virus.

The passengers will be screened for coronavirus before disembarking from the ship, the governor’s office said. If a passenger tests positive for the virus, he or she will be transferred into the care of the Department of Defense and taken to a hospital or location directed by the Health and Human Services, officials said.

Moving passengers to Dobbins from the cruise ship was a decision made by the federal government. However, the governor’s office said it supports the decision because it is “the right thing to do.”

Dobbins is designated as the intake center for biological missions tied to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to previous AJC coverage. In 2015, it served as a landing strip for planes carrying patients affected by the Ebola outbreak who were being moved to Emory University Hospital. In 2005, Dobbins also served as a landing spot for many evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.

In a tweet, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins said after serving at Dobbins Air Reserve base he is confident that “those serving at Dobbins are well prepared to care for the 34 Georgians aboard the Grand Princess.”

MORE: 'Team Dobbins' seeks to protect Cobb base

Kemp said he is “confident that Dobbins is equipped to provide high-quality care for Americans in need while keeping Georgia families safe, and our state stands ready to assist our federal partners if requested.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The Department of Defense is working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services to determine the potential installations and lodging requirements for quarantine operations for the passengers, said 1st Lt. Alan Abernethy, a spokesman with 94th Airlift Wing Public Affairs at Dobbins.

"As with previous efforts, DoD would provide housing and HHS would be responsible for the aspects of the quarantine. Additional information will be provided as soon as it is available," according to the statement from Abernethy.

The people arriving at the reserve base are not known to have the virus, Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Boyce reemphasized in a statement Sunday morning.

VIDEO - Chairman Mike Boyce met with public health, public safety, and county administrators early this morning after...

Posted by Cobb County Government on Sunday, March 8, 2020

“It is a precautionary measure. We need to get them off the ship,” Boyce said.

The chairman said that the situation is likely to cause a “heightened level of anxiety” among Cobb County residents as concern about coronavirus grows.

“We have to acknowledge that,” he said. “But, I want to emphasize a couple of things. First, we live here with you in your community. So, we have the same concerns that you do. And we want to make sure that, because you are our neighbors, we want to provide every possible measure to assure you that we are working very closely with the state and federal governments to address this quarantine situation.”

Cobb health officials have called the operation low-risk, saying it is self-contained. They’ve urged Cobb residents to be cautious of the virus, but not to panic as the quarantined ship’s passengers arrive into town.

“Remember, as this develops, 80% of people who get COVID-19 are having very mild symptoms. You don’t have to be too over-concerned, but make sure you’re doing what you can to avoid getting any sort of illness,” said Dr. Janet Memark, Cobb and Douglas public health director.

She noted that some of the best defenses against getting or spreading COVID-19 are staying home if you feel sick and washing your hands with soap and water.

“When you’re coughing — I know we used to say cough into your elbow. We don’t say that anymore. We want you to cough into tissues and throw them away,” she said.

Meanwhile, residents — along with local businesses and churches in the area — have already begun taking precautions.

Shelves where hand soap once sat in a Marietta Walmart two miles from Dobbins were nearly barren Sunday afternoon, and there was no hand sanitizer to be found.

Raquel Cancel wheeled her cart along the cleaner aisle in a vain search for disinfectant spray to accompany the gallon of bleach she was purchasing. Cancel was stocking up but had not heard about the virus quarantine at nearby Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

“Here? The base here?” she said with raised eyebrows.

Cancel works in the front office in a local school, so her virus alert level was already pretty high. She said she washes her hands so much her knuckles are raw and cracked. Still, she said she is not afraid.

“I’m not scared,” she said. “Just prepared.”

At Marietta First United Methodist Church, about four miles from Dobbins Air Reserve Base, worship services have temporarily paused passing of the peace and the offering plate. Congregants were able to leave tithes and offerings on the chancel rail or send them by text.

“We don’t want to be fearful,” senior minister the Rev. Julie Boone said Sunday. “We also need to be careful.”

New Birth Missionary Baptist Church will have a slightly modified church schedule due to general risks related to COVID-19. New Birth Pastor Jamal Harrison Bryant held a special service to educate members about the coronavirus, placed additional hand sanitizer stations throughout the church and modified the “greet your neighbor” portion from the general service.

Bryant said the church will expand the food pantry and make additional changes to the standard Sunday service if the threat increases.

“As people of faith, we are praying for the best outcome but in the event things take a turn for the worse, we have a strategic plan to shift to a virtual service, if needed," Bryant said.

Staff writers Jeremy Redmon, Chris Joyner, Shelia Poole and Jennifer Brett contributed to this article.