Georgia is entering a potentially devastating phase of the coronavirus outbreak, as scientific models predict a sharp surge in illnesses and deaths in the next two weeks.
On Monday alone, officials confirmed 75 new deaths from the virus. A week earlier, fatalities in Georgia totaled just 100.
Projections for 1,500 additional deaths in Georgia by April 21 reflect a somber prognosis by the U.S. surgeon general. On Sunday, Dr. Jerome Adams likened the coming days to Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, two pivotal events in American history.
State officials, however, continued to send conflicting messages amid unsettling news about the virus’ spread. While a spokeswoman for Gov. Brian Kemp vowed “no exceptions” for anyone who violates a statewide shelter-at-home order, the governor’s top aide struck a surprisingly upbeat tone on social media.
"Georgia — go to the beach, lake or a state park!" Kemp's chief of staff, Tim Fleming, wrote on Facebook. A week earlier, Fleming had criticized the "overreach" of local officials who imposed social-distancing measures — days before Kemp's statewide order superseded those measures.
Kemp is expected this week to extend a public health emergency, first declared on March 14, which would allow him to prolong the shelter-at-home mandate. On Monday, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton extended a statewide judicial emergency to May 13, limiting court business to essential matters, such as bond hearings, restraining orders in domestic violence cases, and arrest warrants.
Three days after the statewide lockdown took effect, the number of confirmed coronavirus diagnoses and deaths grew at a staggering pace.
State public health officials said more than 7,500 Georgians have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. There were about 3,000 cases a week ago.
The official death count rose to 294, up by 75 since Sunday and by roughly 200 from a week ago.
Even with this surge, officials acknowledge the figures lag behind real-time reports from around the state, especially from areas with concentrated outbreaks. The state has tested only the sickest patients, meaning that untold numbers of cases involving milder symptoms have gone uncounted.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA
The state Department of Public Health reports deaths only after laboratory tests confirm the diagnosis, said Nancy Nydam, the agency’s spokeswoman. The department collects reports from hospitals, coroners and medical examiners, and pulls data from death certificates, Nydam said.
“With the current workload on any/all of those, there can be — and is — a lag in reporting,” Nydam wrote in an email Monday.
For instance, the state on Monday reported 44 deaths in southwest Georgia’s Dougherty County, the site of a concentrated outbreak. But Coroner Michael Fowler said the county’s death toll reached 50 over the weekend.
State data shows another 36 deaths in the six sparsely populated counties that surround Dougherty, although local officials say the real figure is higher. On Monday, the number of confirmed deaths in Mitchell County, population 22,000, grew from one to 10.
Computer models updated over the weekend suggest that deaths across Georgia will increase rapidly in the coming days.
One of the most widely cited — and most conservative — models, by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, predicts that Georgia’s daily death toll will peak with 137 fatalities on April 21. An earlier estimate, prepared before Georgia’s shelter-at-home order took effect, showed a peak of 96 deaths on April 25.
Within two weeks, the model suggests, about 1,500 additional Georgians will die from the virus. Deaths will continue well into May, this prediction estimates, on the way to a total of more than 3,400. That is almost 200 more than shown in earlier models.
Other models suggest Georgia deaths could have reached the tens of thousands without the kind of social distancing many residents have practiced for the past few weeks.
Still, “there may be more risk in some states like Texas and Georgia than models currently predict,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, wrote Monday on Twitter. “That may in part flow from the fact that those states are among the worst in testing.”
The number of Georgians tested for COVID-19 doubled in the past week, to more than 40,000, according to the COVID Tracking Project, which compiles information from state public health agencies.
As the bad news continued Monday, some Republican officials defended Kemp against criticism on two fronts: that he waited too long to issue a shelter-at-home order and that, when he did, he wiped out stricter measures already imposed by numerous cities and counties. At least one of Kemp’s allies went so far as to question the veracity of government reports on the virus.
Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols sent his supporters a lengthy newsletter assailing the “fake news media” and those he accused of trying to “score cheap political points” off Kemp’s performance during a crisis.
“Now is not the time for pandemic politics,” Echols wrote. “It’s time for Georgians to unite together and support Governor Kemp and his team, who are using data, science and experts to chart a measured path forward.”
State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, referred to a story on a conservative website that suggested federal experts' predictions about the virus' spread could be "wildly inaccurate." The author once promoted a false conspiracy theory about bombs that a supporter of President Donald Trump admitted to mailing to prominent Democrats and to members of the media.
Still, Stephens said, “Some of us are questioning the models as grossly off.”
Another Republican lawmaker, state Rep. Jeff Jones of Brunswick, wrote Kemp over the weekend to call the reopening of beaches against the wishes of local officials “counterintuitive.”
“I’m scratching my head after this decision,” Jones said in an interview. “Maybe the governor should have sought the opinion of local representatives.”
Staff writers Brad Schrade and Bill Rankin contributed to this article.