Gov. Kemp isolates after COVID exposure at crowded political event

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to a crowd of Republican supporters in Manchester, Ga. ahead of Joe Biden's visit to Georgia on Oct. 27, 2020.

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Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to a crowd of Republican supporters in Manchester, Ga. ahead of Joe Biden's visit to Georgia on Oct. 27, 2020.

U.S. Rep. Ferguson, maskless at event with Kemp, tests positive for virus. Kemp reports negative test result.

Gov. Brian Kemp will self-quarantine, his office said Friday, after U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson disclosed he tested positive for the coronavirus. The two Republican politicians attended a crowded indoor political event together on Thursday.

The announcements come as public health experts have questioned Kemp and other senior leaders' decisions to hold or attend rallies with scant adherence to social distancing and face covering guidelines.

On Friday, less than two hours before Kemp announced he would go into quarantine, the governor extended his statewide coronavirus restrictions with few changes to rules for businesses and the public. Kemp did not reduce the order’s 50-person cap on gatherings, much to the chagrin of independent health experts who have pleaded for tighter restrictions on in-person events.

Video of the Thursday rally for GOP state House candidate David Jenkins showed Kemp without a mask while speaking near Ferguson, though he wore one after his speech. Ferguson did not wear a face covering for the duration of a half-hour video of the event, which was published by the LaGrange Daily News.

Kemp’s office said in a statement Friday afternoon that the governor and his wife, Marty, both tested negative for the disease. But given how recent Kemp’s exposure was to Ferguson, he is not out of the woods because the virus can remain undetected for days after contact with an infected person.

“The governor is not currently experiencing any symptoms and will be quarantining, per Department of Public Health guidance,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said. “The governor spoke with (Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen) Toomey this afternoon and will continue to follow her expert guidance.”

DPH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend 14-day quarantines. The CDC says people who have been within six feet of someone with COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more should stay home for two weeks after their last known contact with an infected person.

Those exposed also should watch for fever, cough and other symptoms and stay away from others at high risk.

Ferguson, Kemp and other top Republicans have barnstormed the state in the lead up to Election Day, often attending events that appear to violate the governor’s own order banning gatherings of more than 50 people. A recent Trump event in Macon drew thousands, many of whom defied mask guidelines and stood shoulder to shoulder.

While Kemp generally wears masks in public, his and other elected leaders' attendance at events that run counter to Kemp’s orders are a poor example to Georgians amid a raging pandemic, public health experts said.

“It’s problematic,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health. "It’s critical our political leaders and public health leaders model behavior and ensure that the public health guidance is enforced.

“All we need to do is look at what we know about child rearing,” he said. “If there’s a gap in what you say and what you do, kids pick up on it quickly.”

Rising cases

Nationally, cases of COVID-19 have surpassed the peak of the summer wave.

Cases of COVID-19 in Georgia remain well below the peak of the summer surge, but infections are rising. Some public health observers warn the feared autumn wave of the virus currently battering other parts of the country could be arriving in Georgia.

Since Oct. 2, the seven-day rolling average in cases has increased more than a third, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data shows.

The number of people currently hospitalized for COVID-19 decreased Friday after climbing for days. Still, the rolling average is up 10% compared to Oct. 12.

On Friday, Georgia reported 1,538 net new cases and 35 net new deaths from the virus. To date, the state has reported 358,225 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, plus about 27,000 additional “probable cases,” and 7,955 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

‘Avoid crowds’

Health experts said the cooler months ahead could be bleak in Georgia if residents do not heed warnings to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash hands, get a flu shot and avoid gatherings, particularly in poorly ventilated spaces.

At one point this summer, President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force urged Georgia to reduce its gathering ban to 10 people, though its most recent report did not recommend a specific size restriction. More than 2,000 medical professionals in recent months signed letters asking Kemp for a 10-person limit.

In its latest report, dated Sunday, the White House task force warned of “signs of deterioration" and urged Georgians to “avoid crowds in public and social gatherings in private."

Ferguson and Kemp also spoke at a large Republican rally on Tuesday in Manchester, meant to counter Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s nearby socially distant campaign event at Warm Springs. Many among the roughly 100 people at the outdoor Republican rally, including Ferguson, were not wearing masks.

Asked Friday why Kemp allows and attends events that conflict with his own order, Hall referred to Kemp’s previous remarks about campaigning in which he referenced respect for protecting free speech.

“We have had political events, other issues, demonstrations, protests where people have First Amendment rights,” Kemp said in a press conference earlier this month.

“What we’re trying to do is get people to be respectful, do the four things we’re asking of them,” Kemp said, referring to his public health campaign, “and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

Americans won’t ‘sit at home’

In a statement Friday, Ferguson’s office said the West Point congressman first began feeling cold-like symptoms Thursday night and took a COVID-19 test the next morning after developing a slight fever. He plans to quarantine and work from home until he tests negative.

“While the vast majority of my recent schedule has been virtual, we are beginning the process of reaching out to anyone I have seen in recent days,” Ferguson said in a statement. “I am eager to get back to work and will do so as soon as I have fully recovered.”

At the Thursday event for Jenkins, who is challenging House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, Kemp and Ferguson chided Democrats for backing greater restrictions on businesses and the movement of people to curtail the virus. Many Republicans, including Trump, have accused Democrats of using the pandemic to gain a political advantage.

“Georgians and Americans are not going to sit at home in their living rooms and shelter-in-place and lose everything they’ve worked for,” Kemp said in the video of the event. “We have got to fight the virus, but we have to keep fighting for paychecks.”