Gov. Brian Kemp ordered Georgians on Wednesday to stay home at least two more weeks to contain what he called “the evil virus.”
Kemp also imposed stricter rules on senior care homes as officials acknowledged for the first time that the novel coronavirus already has killed at least 81 residents of those facilities.
The governor extended a statewide shelter-in-place order — still weakened by numerous loopholes — through April 30. Regardless of whether he renews the order again, it’s clear that disruptions to the daily lives of millions of Georgians will endure through much of the spring.
The coronavirus “is hitting our state hard,” Kemp said during a late afternoon news conference in the state Capitol. But he said his week-old shelter-at-home mandate may be starting to stunt the virus’ spread.
“We’re encouraged,” Kemp said. “I don’t want to tell people that. … I don’t want Georgians to take their foot off the gas.”
Two hours after he spoke, officials released another grim update on the toll taken by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus: The number of confirmed cases jumped past the 10,000 mark, while deaths increased to 369.
Still, there might be a glimmer of improvement. This week, officials reported 75 deaths on Monday, 57 deaths on Tuesday, but just 21 on Wednesday.
The increase in newly confirmed cases also slowed, to 288. By contrast, the number ballooned during a seven-hour period Tuesday by more than 700.
Officials hope any slowing in the number of cases will help avert a crisis in the state’s hospitals. Scientific models predicted Georgia hospitals would begin exceeding their capacity in intensive care units on Wednesday.
But Kemp said officials had worked with hospital executives to identify unused space that could be converted to space for coronavirus patients.
“That is a moving target,” Kemp said. The state is spending $72 million to build more than 200 additional hospital beds to handle the surge in patients.
The acknowledgment of dozens of deaths in senior care homes was especially concerning. Public health experts say elderly people with underlying health conditions — the profile of many residents of the senior homes — are the most vulnerable to the virus.
The state Department of Public Health declined late Wednesday to identify the senior care facilities where residents have died. On Tuesday, the operator of an Athens nursing home acknowledged 10 deaths among residents who had tested positive for the virus. As many as nine residents of a nursing home in southwest Georgia’s Mitchell County also have died.
The public health agency said last week that outbreaks had been identified at 60 senior care facilities. But it didn’t say how many residents had been diagnosed with the virus at each facility, and there were only seven known deaths at the time.
“We have been talking about nursing homes for weeks,” Kemp said. “We know it’s a vulnerable population.”
Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state public health commissioner, who appeared with Kemp, said epidemiologists investigating the massive coronavirus outbreak in the Albany area in southwest Georgia had identified a lack of consistent infection control measures in nursing homes.
Kemp deployed 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops, on top of 2,000 he had already activated, to help disinfect senior care facilities statewide. At the same time, he issued an executive order requiring those facilities — including nursing homes, residential hospices and assisted living and personal care homes, among others — to take more aggressive steps to curb the virus’ spread.
He barred visitors and nonessential workers from entering nursing homes, told the facilities to cancel group activities and meals, and ordered that any nursing home worker who tests positive for the virus must be quarantined.
Kemp was among the last governors to mandate statewide social-distancing measures. But when he finally acted, his executive order wiped out stricter rules already imposed by many local governments. Many local officials said the move blindsided them. One, Glynn County Commission Chairman Mike Browning, a Republican like Kemp, was quoted as saying, “There is no leadership in this state.”
“We have been hung out to dry,” Browning said.
But Kemp stood firm against the criticism on Wednesday, defending his decision to reopen beaches, state parks, golf courses and other outdoor venues. They provide needed recreation, he said, to Georgians otherwise stuck in their homes.
His aides later shared social media posts that falsely depicted large crowds in locations such as the North Georgia mountains and Jekyll Island off the southeast Georgia coast. Some photos apparently were taken weeks or months ago. One showed a line of cars heading to Tybee Island, near Savannah, supposedly on Wednesday; a picture that a state trooper took of the same location showed that highway markings have since changed. Only one car was seen on the road.
“We know exactly how many people are on the beaches every hour of the day,” Kemp said. “Right now, people are behaving.”
Nevertheless, Kemp on Wednesday barred short-term vacation rentals of less than 30 days through the end of the month. He said he could impose additional restrictions if the situation warrants.
Kemp extended the shelter-at-home order and a separate public health emergency with the concurrence of top legislative leaders. After lawmakers convened in a one-day special session last month to approve Kemp’s emergency declaration, legislators had to self-quarantine because they were exposed to two colleagues who tested positive for the coronavirus.
“There is no playbook for this pandemic,” Kemp said Wednesday.