With more virus test supplies, Kemp urges all Georgians to be screened

Gov. Brian Kemp urged all Georgians to schedule an appointment for coronavirus screening regardless of whether they have symptoms, as the state continues to expand testing for the disease even as the rapid growth has exposed new strains.

With the state no longer facing crippling shortages of key supplies, Kemp said Thursday that the capacity for testing now outstrips the public’s demand in the weeks after he began to reopen parts of the economy. That has stressed area labs, however, struggling to keep up with record numbers of tests.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the head of Georgia’s Department of Public Health, emphasized that the widespread testing of Georgians without symptoms is “particularly important” as the state beefs up its contact tracing program to track the disease’s spread.

>>More: Click here for information about free screenings in Georgia

The rapid expansion of testing has threatened to overwhelm some labs, and an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found that a state-run partnership has struggled to keep pace with the demand. Test results have been delayed for more than 4,000 people.

The governor and his aides characterized the strain on the labs as a setback amid a steady escalation that's brought Georgia from the bottom of the pack in per-capita testing to the middle. And he praised a donation of roughly $1 million by the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to help the Augusta University Health System scale up a telemedicine screening program.

“Nobody was prepared for this widespread testing like we’re doing. Thankfully, we’ve ramped up our sampling with 66 testing sites around the state, so we are pushing our labs,” he said. “We wanted to increase our testing, and now we’re working on increasing our lab capacity.”

The pandemic continued to exact a grisly toll on Georgia’s elderly.

Kemp said more than half of the deaths linked to the disease, as well as about one-fifth of the overall cases, are linked to patients in long-term care facilities. About two-thirds of the state’s deaths involve patients with underlying health conditions or the “medically fragile.”

Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday afternoon that all Georgians can get tested for coronavirus if they want, even if they're showing no symptoms of the virus.

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Georgia health officials also expressed fresh concerns about an outbreak of the coronavirus in northeast Georgia around Gainesville, where the number of new cases has increased exponentially during each week in April.

Nearly four dozen patients have died in the area’s main hospital system, and hundreds who work in the state’s poultry industry have been sickened by the disease.

A new mobile hospital and dozens of health care workers have been deployed to the region, and Insurance Commissioner John King helped establish a community task force to warn Spanish-speaking workers in the local poultry industry about the disease.

‘Logistical deployment’

The state's nose-diving tax revenue complicates the state's response. As legislators held a virtual meeting to address the multibillion-dollar shortfall in the budget, Kemp sounded hopeful that help would come in a new stimulus package from Washington. But key lawmakers remain at odds over such a plan.

A key part of containing the spread of COVID-19 in Gainesville and elsewhere relies on the expansion of a new surveillance program that Toomey said has enjoyed a surge of interest.

Before the coronavirus arrived, the state employed about 250 contact tracers to track and contain the spread of infectious diseases such as measles, tuberculosis and HIV, and Toomey wants to quadruple that amount in the weeks ahead.

The DPH recently posted job listings for $15-an-hour part-time and full-time tracing positions, and Toomey said the department has received 1,000 applications. The department has plans to hire “at least 300” in the next several weeks, Toomey said, and another 300 as part of a second wave.

Gov. Brian Kemp (left) tours the temporary medical pod that has been placed at the North Campus of Phoebe Putney Health System with their CEO Scott Steiner (right) on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Albany. The pod is scheduled to begin operations on Wednesday, May 6, housing 24 beds to treat non-critical COVID-19 patients. (CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com)

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The department has also reached out to the state’s medical and public health schools seeking student interns, and Toomey said the DPH is currently training 200.

Toomey likened the hiring spree to a military operation and said at least two staff members from the CDC Foundation are helping coordinate training of the new workers.

“This is more than an epidemiologic activity,” she said. “This is a logistical deployment.”

Toomey dodged a question about whether there were currently enough employees in places to track all cases or if resources are being rationed to prioritize frontline workers, people in senior centers or other more vulnerable populations.

Some experts say Georgia will need many more tracers — thousands, not hundreds — to contain the virus and emphasize the importance of a robust testing system that can quickly pinpoint new infections.

Minnesota, which has about half the population of Georgia, recently announced it is seeking to build an army of up to 4,200 tracers. Texas wants to train an additional 2,850 tracers in addition to its current staff of 1,150, while California has a goal of employing 10,000 tracers.

Still, Toomey said the expanded program will provide Georgia with more widespread data to contain new outbreaks and prevent others while training a new generation of public health workers.

“We’re hoping,” she said, “that this will be part of a success of our efforts as well as stopping the spread of COVID-19.”