Georgia’s first full week of life in the coronavirus age ended with confusion, bad economic news and a mounting toll of illness and death.
More than 300 cruise ship passengers — many apparently exposed to the coronavirus during a trans-Atlantic odyssey — arrived in Atlanta on a chartered flight Friday with no clear plan to return them to their homes. They spent hours on the Atlanta airport’s tarmac as public health officials scrambled to screen them for symptoms of the virus. Some passengers reportedly called 911 from the plane, hoping in vain for faster relief.
» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia
Meanwhile, shares in Atlanta-based Coca-Cola dropped 8.6% after the company warned investors it would not meet projected earnings because of the coronavirus pandemic. In West Point, Kia Motors suspended production at its assembly plant. At the airport, 225 workers at shops and restaurants lost their jobs because of a slowdown in commercial air travel.
And across Georgia, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increased by a staggering 300%, to 485, between Monday and Friday. On Monday, one Georgian had died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus; by Friday, the death toll had surged to 14.
In just one seven-hour period Friday, 65 new cases and one additional death were confirmed.
The state Department of Public Health has confirmed coronavirus cases in 53 Georgia counties. Deaths have been reported from Fulton County, the state’s largest, to Early County, a community of 10,000 residents on the Alabama border in southwestern Georgia.
Nearby Dougherty County remains the state’s hardest-hit community, with six deaths attributed to the virus. Laboratory tests have confirmed 44 cases in Dougherty — more than in DeKalb or Gwinnett counties, despite their much larger populations.
State and federal public health officials dispatched a team of epidemiologists to Albany to investigate the outbreak.
In response to the deepening crisis in Albany, Gov. Brian Kemp issued a joint statement with state lawmakers, U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop and local officials that urged residents to wash their hands frequently, practice social distancing and stay home if possible.
Kemp made no public statements or appearances Friday.
Late in the day, however, his office announced that Kemp had authorized spending $19.6 million from a $100 million emergency fund for medical supplies and equipment.
Friday was remarkable for how unremarkable many of the day’s developments seemed in light of the worsening public health emergency.
In the past week, schools, colleges and universities have closed. Many companies told employees to work from home. An increasing number of cities ordered restaurants, bars and other businesses to shut down. Hospitals began showing strains from a surge of patients, although one large hospital system, Wellstar, continued to perform elective surgeries despite recommendations by federal officials to postpone such procedures. Asked Friday why it had not stopped all elective surgeries, the hospital system said in a statement late Friday that it continued to perform some procedures and was “actively participating in a nationwide discussion around the balance between risk to patients of delaying their needed operations with the risk of proceeding with those operations.”
The confusion surrounding the coronavirus response was exemplified by the plight of passengers from the Costa Luminosa cruise ship.
The ship, owned by Miami-based Carnival Corps., sailed from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Feb. 24 with more than 1,400 passengers. The 30-day cruise was supposed to end in Venice, with stops in several Caribbean and European ports.
But on Feb. 28, as the coronavirus spread rapidly in Italy, authorities in Jamaica refused to let the ship’s Italian passengers disembark. By early March, several passengers showed symptoms of COVID-19, and one died after he was left at a hospital in the Cayman Islands.
The ship was not allowed to dock in Antigua, the Canary Islands or Spain and was diverted from Venice. It finally ended up in Marseille, France, on Thursday.
More than 300 of the passengers — 359, according to Kemp’s office; 316, Carnival said — quickly boarded a chartered flight to Atlanta, from where they would have to make arrangements to get home. During the flight, tests results confirmed that three passengers had the coronavirus, and another 13 appeared to be ill, Kemp’s office said.
At Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, authorities diverted the plane to a remote part of the airport for several hours, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The three passengers who had tested positive were separated from the others, and a fourth was taken to a hospital.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention screened the other passengers for coronavirus symptoms — and then let them leave and book flights home, despite their exposure to the virus.
Health and Human Services said in a statement that passengers displaying no symptoms were told to stay home for 14 days and to “monitor their health and practice social distancing as they continued to their final destination.”
On a hastily created Facebook page for cruise passengers, Barbara Hernandez, a former resident of St. Simons Island, complained about a lack of precautions as her fellow passengers entered the airport terminal.
“I am extremely upset at so many passengers whom left that flight after clearing CDC and immediately removed their mask,” Hernandez wrote. “I saw them at the TSA line without a mask, possibly infecting other people. Very selfish since we were all told to keep our mask on and to self-quarantine.”
In a telephone interview, her husband, Emilio Hernandez, said he wrote a letter to the ship’s captain on Sunday, pleading with him to bring the journey to a close.
“You need to stop,” Hernandez wrote. “The longer you stay on this ship the more people are going to get hurt.”
On the flight to Atlanta, the couple had no idea that three others on the plane had the coronavirus, he said. “You didn’t know if you were sitting next to the person who tested positive.”
When Julie Nemelka’s parents arrived in Atlanta, she expected they would have to quarantine in Georgia for two weeks.
Instead, by late Friday afternoon, her parents were on a flight back to Salt Lake City.
“I’m really surprised that the CDC did not keep them there,” Nemelka said. “Why didn’t they at least keep them away from the population in the airport?”
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Staff writers Jeremy Redmon and Carrie Teegardin contributed reporting.