A look at major coronavirus developments in Georgia over the past week

A medical professional in protective gear prepares to collect a sample from a potential COVID-19 patient at a Phoebe Putney Health System drive-through testing site in Albany. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus is quickly rising and has surpassed 2,000 in the state.

As of Friday, at least 64 Georgians had died as a result of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Intensive care units are already full in some hard-hit communities such as Cobb County and Albany, according to officials.

Almost two-thirds of Georgia’s 159 counties have reported positive diagnoses, the state public health agency said. Georgia’s first two cases of the coronavirus were confirmed just three weeks ago.

Here’s a look at major developments in Georgia this past week related to the coronavirus.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a town hall meeting to discuss the growing coronavirus pandemic that airs live on WSB-TV Channel 2, CBS46, Georgia Public Broadcasting, 11 Alive, FOX 5 Atlanta and Univision 34 Atlanta at WSB-TV Channel 2 on Thursday night, March 26, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Kemp urges Georgians to heed virus warnings but balks at drastic steps

Gov. Brian Kemp pleaded with Georgians during a Thursday statewide televised event to stay home and practice social distancing even as he stressed more drastic measures weren’t yet needed to stem the disease’s spread.

Using a prime-time town hall broadcast across the state, the governor urged residents, particularly the “elderly and medically fragile,” to heed state directives and isolate to limit the spread of the virus so he wouldn’t have to impose stiffer restrictions that could further devastate the state’s economy.

“I’m having to govern the whole state,” he said, saying that even as more hot spots arise, broad sections of the state have hardly been touched by the virus. “We still have over 50 counties that don’t have a confirmed case yet. We’re trying to balance that.”

Kemp has come under intense criticism from epidemiologists and other critics who say the restrictions he’s imposed, which include a ban on many public gatherings and a shutdown of bars and nightclubs, don’t go far enough to contain the highly contagious illness.

The town hall also featured Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said she respected the governor’s stance but warned that not embracing steeper restrictions could further strain Georgia’s health care system. Bottoms has ordered all but essential businesses in the city to close for 14 days and directed residents to generally remain at home.

And in an implicit rebuke to Kemp, the Georgia Municipal Association has urged all of the state’s 538 cities to use their “inherent police powers” to impose the tough restrictions that the governor has resisted.

MORE: COMPLETE COVERAGE: Everything you need to know about the coroanvirus in Georgia

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Pressure on hospitals mount as cornavirus cases rise quickly 

An expected surge in coronavirus cases has public health officials increasingly worried that Georgia hospitals will be unable to treat everyone who becomes critically ill as the pandemic worsens.

The situation is so dire in Albany that Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital is scrambling to add as many as 60 critical-care beds in a satellite facility.

At least 12 people have died at Phoebe Putney from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The southwest Georgia hospital has admitted at least three dozen other patients who have tested positive.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia’s public health commissioner, emphasized the gravity of the looming hospital crisis while speaking Wednesday to about 500 pastors on a conference call with Kemp.

“We have concerns that the virus will spread at a very rapid rate and it will overwhelm hospitals,” Toomey told the pastors. Reporters for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution listened to Toomey’s remarks by dialing into a widely shared telephone number for the conference call.

Churches, Toomey said, may link many COVID-19 cases in “hot spots,” particularly in Albany, Cartersville and parts of Middle Georgia.

Medical workers give instructions at a Phoebe Putney Health System drive-through testing site in Albany. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Shortage in coronavirus testing remains major issue

A shortage of kits and testing supplies nationally means rationing of coronavirus tests is likely to continue in Georgia, and state officials do not know when broader testing of the public will be possible, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Officials hope the two-dozen or so drive-through and other remote testing sites set up by public health agencies, labs and hospitals in Georgia will eventually help expand testing more broadly. Five thousand test kits provided by the federal government were recently deployed to two federal-state drive-through testing sites in Albany and Cherokee County, and the state received 1,550 kits this week from private suppliers, Cody Hall, a spokesman for Kemp, said Wednesday in an e-mail.

But until governments and the private sector can source more kits and supplies such as swabs, testing will remain rationed in Georgia and many other states for the very sick, vulnerable people such those who live in nursing homes and emergency workers.

Limited testing — both statewide and across the country — has hampered the U.S. response to COVID-19, denying the nation’s public health agencies and elected leaders invaluable data showing how prevalent the virus is and where it’s moving, health experts said.

Jobless claims surge as the coronavirus takes big toll

A tidal wave of layoffs has sent the number of claims for unemployment benefits soaring in Georgia — and a much larger wave is on the way, the state Department of Labor said Thursday.

Officials said that 12,140 Georgians filed for unemployment insurance in the week that ended Saturday — more than double the previous week’s claims number — as businesses across the state closed or contracted in an effort to slow down the spread of the coronavirus.

The pain in Georgia echoed that in the nation as a whole.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that 3.28 million Americans had filed initial jobless claims last week, by far the most on record for one week. Previously, the largest number of claims was in 1982, when 695,000 Americans filed jobless claims.

March 26, 2020 Cartersville: A nurse passes by a sign leaving the Cartersville Medical Center where many patients have been confirmed to have COVID-19 and several have died from the local community that has been hard hit by the coronavirus on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Cartersville. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Georgia public schools to remain closed through April 24

Kemp on Thursday ordered the continued closure of schools until at least April 24 in the ongoing fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Kemp’s order gives K-12 schools the power to reopen on April 27, though he could extend the closure if the pandemic crisis worsens. Public colleges, which have already moved to online learning, will remain closed until the end of the school year.

The decision will have a profound impact on students and parents, particularly those who rely on subsidized meal programs and who struggle with Internet access necessary for remote learning. It also means parents will have to continue to juggle home-schooling with their professional duties.

— Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Alan Judd, Ty Tagami, J. Scott Trubey and Michael E. Kanell contributed to this article.

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