Conversion of Georgia World Congress Center will add 200 hospital beds

The exterior of the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Tuesday, April 7, 2020.   (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The exterior of the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gov. Brian Kemp announced Easter Sunday that the state will convert part of the sprawling Georgia World Congress Center into a 200-bed hospital for coronavirus patients, as Christians observed the holiest day for the faith by largely abiding by the governor's pleas to stay home and watch services online.

The epidemic also hit home for Kemp — literally — as a worker on the grounds of the Governor's Mansion tested positive for COVID-19, triggering a round of testing and self-quarantining for those who had contact with the employee.

But administration officials stressed that neither Kemp nor any family members were exposed.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said Sunday evening there were 12,545 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, up 284 cases from a day earlier. Deaths also increased by ten, to 442.

Cases of the disease have now been confirmed in all but two of Georgia’s 159 counties.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that state officials were quietly preparing to establish large emergency facilities at the World Congress Center as well as two other locations in Macon and Savannah.

The Atlanta convention center complex will be used to treat coronavirus patients experiencing mild to moderate symptoms of the disease, Kemp said. Patients who need ventilators or require more intensive care will be sent to hospitals.

“We are working around the clock to prepare for future needs and ensure the health and well-being of our state,” the governor said.

Kemp announced this month that four new mobile medical units and expansions at two hospitals will add nearly 300 hospital beds to Georgia’s inventory.

But more hospital capacity is needed.

The preparations underscore the seriousness of the pandemic as Georgia races to find enough hospital beds, ventilators and other supplies before a projected April 26 peak in COVID-19 cases.

Across the nation, convention centers accustomed to hosting mega-conferences and big-ticket affairs have already been transformed into emergency rooms and other medical spaces.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, an Emory University infectious disease expert, said in an online forum Friday the state is performing better at containing the virus in recent days than some of the modeling suggested, a sign that severe social distancing is helping Georgia avoid exponential growth of the disease.

“Instead of seeing one day 10 patients, and the next day 20, and the next day 40, and the next day 80,” he said, “we are seeing one day 10, the next 12, and the next 14, and the next day 16. That makes a huge difference.”

Still, del Rio urged Georgians to keep up social distancing and said he couldn’t predict what Georgia’s apex might look like.

“It’s a matter of waiting for a hurricane to hit you,” he said. “It might hit you with a Category 4, it might hit you with a tropical storm.”

Kemp is doing his part by limiting contact with staffers and enforcing social distancing at press conferences.

His office said the infected worker at the Governor’s Mansion, whose name and occupation were undisclosed, last reported to the Buckhead compound on April 3. The worker did not enter the house and had no contact with Kemp, his family, or staff that works in the building.

The people who traveled with the staffer to the grounds that day also were screened for COVID-19, and each tested negative, Kemp’s office said.

“The premises are routinely disinfected, and we have suspended the use of work crews at the mansion to mitigate risk,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said.

‘We didn’t close our church doors’

As the state scrambled for resources to treat the sick, Christians celebrated Easter, the observance of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s a date when many churches see their largest crowds.

Though Kemp instituted a statewide shelter-in-place order, he has resisted calls to ban in-person worship services, urging compliance with social distancing and for pastors to hold services online. He said clergy members that stream their sermons or hold drive-in services are "literally saving lives."

The governor’s decision was quickly tested. Last week, state troopers issued reckless conduct citations to a pastor of Redeeming Love Church of God the Bibleway, a small Statesboro church, and four congregants who held worship services in close quarters despite several warnings.

A few dozen congregants were back on Sunday. A pastor identified as Eli Porter told the congregants they were “making a stand” against a government that he accused of trying to block their First Amendment rights.

“I believe in a God who can heal. I have faith.” Porter told cheering worshipers. Though there was some separation between members, the video showed most seated close together.

“We have four people going to be baptized today, that’s because we didn’t close our church doors,” said the pastor.

“They had every cop here trying to shut down this service last week, and you won’t find that today. …We have to stand strong and believe,” he said. “Faith cannot complete its job unless it’s tested.”

But for the most part, congregations across Georgia appeared to heed Kemp’s warnings.

In Blue Ridge, in the North Georgia Mountains, about 40 cars parked outside St. Luke’s Episcopal Church as the Rev. Victor Morgan led worship outside. Others tuned in online.

The church has not held services inside for several weeks. Morgan and another member of the clergy passed out sealed communion packets.

Worshipers could tithe without encountering others by placing their offerings in a mailbox or giving online.

“I think we’re in complete compliance,” Morgan said. “We made sure people stayed in their cars. In the mountains people are out by themselves. It was nice to see their faces, connect that way and still be safe.”

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a U.S. Senate candidate and senior pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, took the pulpit at his empty church to deliver a hopeful message: “Darkness and dawn occur at the same time.”

“My prayer, my beloved, is through this COVID-19 challenge, you will not give up,” he said.

In southeast Atlanta, a pastor of a smaller, but still politically influential church also addressed her flock online. Mitzi Bickers, who holds the title of bishop, addressed an empty sanctuary of Emmanuel Baptist Church in a sermon streamed over Facebook.

Bickers, a political consultant, helped Kasim Reed narrowly win his first run for Atlanta mayor in 2009 and served in Reed’s administration from 2010-2013.

Bickers was indicted in March 2018 and faces a dozen felony counts. She is accused of accepting bribes and wielding influence to help two construction company CEOs win city business.

Her trial had been scheduled to start Monday with jury selection, but the case was continued until at least June 22.

Bickers, who has pleaded not guilty, did not directly reference her legal troubles. But she thanked followers who have financially supported her.

“You have continued to care for my needs,” she said, “and I want to tell you personally, thank you so much.”