April 16, 2020 Conyers: GNR Health Department LPN LaToya Parterat takes a nasal swab at a large scale drive-through COVID-19 testing site at the Georgia International Horse Park recently on Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Conyers. Gov. Brian Kemp has made it a priority to expand testing in Georgia, which has lagged behind many other states in testing on a per capita basis. Public health experts say Georgia and other states need a substantial ramp up in testing to help isolate the virus and future outbreaks. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Georgia launches new test sites in rural areas as grim milestones near

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office on Sunday announced new drive-through coronavirus testing sites to serve rural stretches of Georgia, as the state and nation approach grim new milestones in the battle against COVID-19.

Georgia is likely to hit 25,000 confirmed cases this week, and could approach 1,000 deaths.

The U.S., meanwhile, is approaching 1 million cases, and the tally of deaths nationwide increased to more than 54,000 — or a few thousand shy of the total number of Americans killed as a result of the Vietnam War.

Kemp’s office said Walmart and contractor eTrueNorth will operate drive-through testing sites that will rotate between the cities of Tifton, Milledgeville and Hephzibah, a small town near Augusta.

The additions come as Georgia and local health authorities have established about four dozen drive-through testing centers across the state.

In a news release, Kemp said the rotating mobile unit to serve the Tifton, Milledgeville and Augusta areas “will be a game-changing step in our efforts to ensure access to COVID-19 (testing) across Georgia.”

“Increased testing is critical as we continue the measured process of safely reopening parts of our state, and I am grateful to our many partners with Walmart, eTrueNorth, and in these communities which provided support to get this operation online,” Kemp said.

The state Department of Public Health reported 265 new cases of COVID-19 Sunday, bringing the state’s total to 23,481, or nearly the population of Decatur.

Total deaths in Georgia attributed to the disease increased to 916.

Georgia has lagged in testing per capita nationally, and Kemp has made increasing capacity a top priority. Georgia’s standing has improved.

As of Sunday afternoon, the state ranked 35th nationally, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of national testing figures. That compares to 40th on Wednesday and 42nd a week ago.

But Georgia still has far to go to reach testing thresholds endorsed by some public health experts.

Researchers at Harvard University estimated last week that daily testing needs to average 152 people per 100,000 to more effectively contain COVID-19. For Georgia, that’s about 17,000 people per day — or nearly triple the number of daily tests the state reported in recent days.

Testing has been a struggle nationally as health groups and governments grapple with constrained supplies of critical testing equipment and lab processing capacity.

New warning

On Sunday, researchers at Georgia Tech, Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital warned the virus in Georgia is not contained and simulations forecast that loosening restrictions over the next month could trigger a second wave of cases and deaths this summer many times greater than what’s been seen thus far.

The sobering estimate comes as some restaurants will begin reopening dine-in service in Georgia on Monday, with restrictions. Movie theaters also will be able to operate, provided they follow new rules.

On Friday, businesses such as nail and hair salons, barbershops, bowling alleys and massage and tattoo parlors could reopen with restrictions.

Kemp has described the loosening of his shelter-in-place rules as a measured approach to allow Georgia’s economy to safely restart.

The governor has been cheered by many Georgia Republicans and business owners. But Kemp also has taken heat from public health experts, Democrats and even President Donald Trump who declared the move “too soon.” The AJC and other outlets, however, have reported Trump initially approved of Kemp’s decision before blasting it in public.

Kemp’s shelter-in-place order is set to expire Thursday at 11:59 p.m., unless the governor extends it.

Cases of COVID-19 have grown nearly five-fold since April 1, the day Kemp announced he would sign the stay-at-home order. There are now almost six times the number of deaths since April 1.

Testing sites

Service at the drive-through testing centers Kemp announced will begin Monday in Hephzibah.

The centers will operate Mondays and Tuesdays in Hephzibah, Wednesdays and Saturdays in Milledgeville and Thursdays and Fridays in Tifton, the state said.

Those in the Tifton, Milledgeville and Augusta areas experiencing COVID-19 symptoms can get a test with an appointment. First responders and health care workers can receive a test with an appointment whether or not they are experiencing symptoms.

An appointment for a test can be made at www.DoINeedACOVID19Test.com.

Augusta University Health System is coordinating appointments for Georgians at testing sites across the state.

Georgians can download the free AU Health ExpressCare app on a smartphone and connect with a medical provider for a telehealth screening 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. If the provider determines a patient needs a test, the provider will schedule one at the nearest testing site.

The app works on Apple and Android phones and is accessible via computer at www.augustaexpresscare.org. For those without internet access or a smartphone, residents can call a hotline at 706-721-1852.

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