Gov. Brian Kemp on Friday declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Georgia to declare public health emergency amid coronavirus outbreak

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp will declare a public health emergency Saturday and call for a special legislative session to help marshal the state’s response to a coronavirus outbreak that has sickened dozens of residents and killed one.

Kemp’s office said the declaration will be Georgia’s first ever public health emergency and would require lawmakers to return to the Capitol on Monday - days after they suspended the 40-day session indefinitely on Friday amid the growing pandemic.

“This declaration will greatly assist health and emergency management officials across Georgia by deploying all available resources for the mitigation and treatment of COVID-19,” Kemp said Friday, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The emergency powers would allow Kemp to assume “direct operational control of all civil helpers in the state” and give him broad authority to perform “duties as may be deemed necessary to promote and secure the safety and protection” of residents. 

They also would let him suspend regulations that would “prevent, hinder or delay necessary action” to cope with the outbreak, and give his office new powers to “commandeer or utilize” private property if it’s seen as essential.

MORE: Nearly 500 cruise ship passengers have arrived in Georgia

House Speaker David Ralston quickly endorsed the executive actions, calling them “proactive steps to protect the health and safety of our citizens.” And Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said he has faith in the “state’s leadership to navigate this unprecedented territory successfully.” 

Some Democrats also backed the resolution, which is set for a vote on Monday at 8 a.m. 

“We’re in uncharted territory. The COVID-19 is an unfolding situation and the response to it is rapidly evolving,” said House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, the top Democrat in the chamber. “The declaration of a public health emergency certainly seems prudent.” 

‘Be mindful’

The governor also said it was “appropriate” for faith-based organizations and other groups to consider canceling public events. On Thursday, he issued a similar call to school systems.

A Georgia state trooper, right, walks the empty hallways of the Georgia Capitol on Friday during the 29th day of the state’s legislative session. Out of caution and in relation to the coronavirus, the General General Assembly suspended the legislative session until further notice. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Elderly citizens and those with chronic, underlying health conditions face a serious threat to their health, and we must do everything in our power to reduce risk associated with this virus,” he added. 

“Continue to support one another, be mindful of potential exposure, use best practices to prevent infection, and pray for your fellow Americans in the weeks ahead.”

The governor’s announcement came shortly after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and said he was giving states and territories access to up to $50 billion in federal funds to contain the spread of the disease. He also urged every state to “set up emergency operations centers, effective immediately.”

“To unleash the full power of the federal government to this effort today, I am officially declaring a national emergency – two very big words,” Trump said.

Trump also asked every hospital nationwide to activate their emergency preparedness plans. And he gave broad new authority to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, allowing him to waive legal provisions to give doctors and hospitals more flexibility to fight the coronavirus.

RELATED: Georgia preps new ‘quarantine space’ for coronavirus patients

March12, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks as other officials standing behind during a press conference to provide an update on the state's efforts regarding COVID-19, after reporting the first death in Georgia related to coronavirus, at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 11, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On Friday, Georgia health officials confirmed the number of coronavirus cases in the state had climbed to 42. Cobb and Fulton counties each have eight. New cases have been reported in Bartow, Cherokee, Coweta, DeKalb, Fayette, Fulton and Gordon counties. 

Earlier this week, a 67-year-old patient at WellStar Kennestone Hospital became Georgia’s first patient to die from COVID-19.

Nearly 500 passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship — which was hit with the coronavirus — have been flown to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Friday.

The state government, meanwhile, is building a “quarantine space” that will house residents who are sickened by the disease and who have nowhere to isolate themselves. The facility is under construction at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Monroe County and is expected to accommodate 20 temporary housing units.

The state previously prepared a section of Hard Labor Creek State Park in Morgan County for isolating and monitoring patients who were exposed to COVID-19. One patient, a military veteran who worked at a Waffle House in Canton, was isolated there this week. 

The patient, Joey Camp, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he volunteered to be isolated because he lives with a friend who has an infant son. He said he lived in a remote section of the sprawling park and is taking antibiotics and watching movies on his smartphone.

Staff writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this report.

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