As deaths soar, Georgia enters dangerous phase of outbreak

A sharp escalation in coronavirus deaths and illnesses signals that Georgia is entering a dangerous new phase of the outbreak.

State officials said Thursday that 10 Georgians have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus — an increase of six since the previous day. In addition, the state medical examiner’s office said it is investigating five other deaths that may be linked to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in Georgia confirmed by laboratory tests increased to 297, nearly 50% more than Wednesday’s total.

More worrisome, however, is the death rate in Georgia among those with confirmed cases: nearly 3.5%.

By comparison, in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, 1.4% of cases were fatal, according to a study published Thursday in the scientific journal Nature Medicine.

In remarks streamed online from the state Capitol, Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia's public health commissioner, predicted a continuing surge in cases.

» AJC continuing coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

“The more we test, the more we will find,” Kemp said. “We saw that today, and I think it will continue.”

Most confirmed cases are in metro Atlanta, particularly in Fulton and Cobb counties. But Toomey said “hot spots” exist in both northwestern and southwestern Georgia, primarily in Bartow and Floyd counties, north of Atlanta, and Dougherty County, about 200 miles to the south.

Nearly half of all Georgia cases were reported in people between ages 18 and 59. Federal and state health officials have repeatedly warned that elderly people are most at risk, but people 60 and over account for only about one-third of Georgians who have contracted the virus.

Kemp said the state is investigating more potential cases in long-term care facilities, where residents are considered especially vulnerable.

In a somber address from a lectern in the governor’s ceremonial office, Kemp painted a bleak picture of Georgia in the coronavirus era: children indefinitely out of school, adults isolated from their workplaces, public gatherings that are “few and far between.”

“Life has drastically changed over the past few weeks,” Kemp said.

And, describing “looming supply shortages” at some hospitals, Kemp said the state would start conserving “precious medical supplies” — including protective gear for health care workers treating potentially infected patients.

“There are no easy answers,” Kemp said, pledging that the state will be “dynamic and responsive.”

“Georgians deserve to have the facts to make the right decisions for their families,” he said.

Toomey was especially concerned by cases of “community transmission,” in which infected persons have not self-quarantined.

“Stay home,” she said. “Don’t go out if you’re sick. Honor the social distancing recommendations. Make sure you protect your neighbors as well as yourselves.”

Despite efforts to contain the coronavirus, nine of the 10 deaths in Georgia have occurred since Sunday.

Four people have died in Dougherty County, two in Fulton County and one each in Cobb, Early, Fayette and Floyd counties. Their ages ranged from 42 to 83. At least eight had chronic health conditions before contracting the virus.

Nelly Miles, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said the state medical examiner’s office is investigating five other deaths: two in Dougherty County and one each in Rockdale, Cherokee and Barrow counties.

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One of the Dougherty County cases involved a woman in her 40s who died in her home on Sunday. The other was a man in his 70s who died in a nursing home the same day.

Autopsy results in the five cases are not complete, Miles said.

For the first time, officials on Thursday identified one of the deceased patients: Elizabeth Eugenia Wells, 65, of Rome.

Wells died late Wednesday afternoon at Redmond Regional Medical Center in Rome, where she was admitted on March 7 with a fever and trouble breathing, said Gene Proctor, the Floyd County coroner.

The hospital collected samples to test Wells for the virus on March 8 and learned on March 12 that she had tested positive.

» RELATED: Supply shortages force health systems to devise own workarounds

» MORE: As hospitals fight to keep up, they tell mild cases not to seek tests

Wells may be connected to a cluster of cases at a Cartersville church, Proctor said. She sang in the choir at the Church at Liberty Square, where at least 15 members have tested positive for the coronavirus or are awaiting test results, according to church members.

At least two people became ill after attending a reunion of choir members on March 1, before Georgians had been urged to practice social distancing and to avoid large gatherings.

In a statement, the church’s senior pastor, Jacob King, said anyone who attended that gathering should self-quarantine and monitor their symptoms until March 22.

Proctor said it wasn’t clear whether Wells had other health conditions before contracting the virus.

He is working with state health officials to track Wells’ activities in the days before she entered the hospital.

“We have to make sure we track down when maybe this started and where she went and what contacts she had,” Proctor said. “We are going to feed information to (the Department of Public Health) and see if we could stop this from happening to anyone else.”

Proctor said he knows of no other deaths in Floyd County that could be related to the coronavirus. But he worries Wells’ death won’t be the last.

“It’s a huge concern,” he said. “How much further is it going to go?”

AJC staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.