‘Explosive spread’ of coronavirus in Georgia likely to worsen

Officials confirm 10 deaths in seven hours after Kemp aide decries ‘doomsday’ projections

Editor's note: This article has been updated with a statement from Gov. Brian Kemp's communications director.

The novel coronavirus' relentless spread across Georgia intensified Saturday, capping a week in which confirmed cases quadrupled and at least 56 people died.

In just seven hours on Saturday, state officials confirmed 10 additional deaths, bringing the total to 79. All have died in just slightly more than two weeks.

Officials announced the new death toll shortly after Gov. Brian Kemp’s chief of staff complained on social media that the threat from the coronavirus has been overstated.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

“The media and some in the medical profession are peddling these doomsday models and projections,” Kemp’s top aide, Tim Fleming, wrote Saturday. “This has in turn resulted in people panicking and local governments across our state overreacting. As a result of their overreach, many small businesses will struggle and some will not reopen.”

Fleming’s remarks appear to conflict with the position of the state’s own public health officials, who say the outbreak is likely to worsen without aggressive social distancing measures.

Far more Georgians have the coronavirus than those identified so far through a limited testing program, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state's public health commissioner, said Friday in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Those people may become sicker, or they may spread the virus into more vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and people with chronic illnesses.

“We’ll see it get much worse,” especially if Georgians do not practice social distancing, Toomey said.

“We have focused solely on those most at risk,” Toomey said. “We don’t know how many people are out there with mild or minimal symptoms. We’re not testing people at low risk or have the flu or other things.”

Only about 11,000 Georgians have been tested so far, far fewer than in neighboring Florida, Tennessee or North Carolina. As a result, Georgia officials cannot identify, much less isolate, a majority of people who have contracted the virus.

To curb what Toomey called the "explosive spread" of the virus thus requires extreme social distancing for all Georgians, perhaps more than Kemp has been willing to order.

A spokeswoman for Kemp declined to say whether the governor agreed with his chief of staff’s criticism of local officials.

But Candice Broce, Kemp’s communications director, said the governor and his top health official are not in conflict over the state’s coronavirus reponse.

“Governor Kemp and Dr. Toomey work hand-in-hand to ensure the safety of Georgians across our state,” Broce wrote in an email late Saturday to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The governor trusts her medical judgment and expertise, and the action taken so far is a direct reflection of her recommendations.”

Figures released by the Georgia Department of Public Health demonstrate how rapidly the coronavirus is spreading.

Last Sunday, the state had 600 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. By Saturday evening, that number had reached 2,336.

Last Sunday, 23 people had died in Georgia. By Saturday afternoon, that number stood at 69; by Saturday evening, at 79.

Authorities have confirmed cases in at least 108 of Georgia’s 159 counties and deaths in 28. Slightly more than half the confirmed cases and the deaths come from six counties: Fulton, DeKalb, Dougherty, Cobb, Gwinnett and Bartow. All but Dougherty are in metro Atlanta.

On national television Saturday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms emphasized the situation’s gravity by pleading with residents to remain indoors, even on what turned into a sun-drenched spring day that seemed to rebuke a long, chilly, wet winter.

In a remarkably personal recounting of the virus’ toll, Bottoms told CNN that the official statistics on coronavirus cases don’t capture the outbreak’s full scope.

“I know so many people who are sick … healthy people, young people; one of my friends who is a doctor is at home with a fever right now,” Bottoms said. “I have another friend who I was just on spring break with who is very sick and has been to the emergency room twice. … My college roommate’s mother is intubated in a local hospital.”

She cited projections by health care planners that Atlanta-area hospitals will be filled beyond capacity by May 3. State and city officials are scouting locations to set up temporary hospitals.

“This is not to alarm people,” Bottoms said, “but it is to stress to people that this is real. The thing we can do is stay at home. We are not asking people to pick up arms and go to war. People aren’t fleeing famine. We’re asking you to stay at home. … It’s a simple request so that people can have an opportunity to simply live.”

Bottoms issued one of the state’s strongest shelter-at-home directives, closing bars and restaurants except for take-out orders and shutting down nonessential businesses. Many other cities across metro Atlanta and in other parts of Georgia followed suit. On Saturday, the mayors of Dunwoody, Chamblee and Forest Park ordered residents to stay at home, except for essential trips.

Kemp closed bars and nightclubs, but not restaurants, and limited public gatherings to fewer than 10 people unless adequate social distancing can be ensured. He has urged, but not ordered, churches to hold only online services. He has asked, but not mandated, that hospitals cancel elective surgeries to preserve medical supplies. He has repeatedly said a stay-at-home order – except for medically fragile people – is still unnecessary while the virus has not been detected in 50 mostly rural counties.

Kemp has focused resources on "hot spots," including Albany in southwest Georgia, which has the highest rate of infection in the state. In an op-ed published Saturday on the Albany Herald's website, Kemp said the state has provided the community with protective gear for health care workers, is working to add hospital beds and has assigned epidemiologists to identify the source of the outbreak and try to contain it.

“This focus on the local level will save lives and reduce the stress of Georgia’s health care infrastructure,” Kemp wrote. “We are in this fight together.”

In her interview with the Journal-Constitution, Toomey praised Bottoms’ approach as correct for an urban center like Atlanta. She said some communities, such as Rome in northwest Georgia, seem to have slowed the virus’ spread through social distancing measures that are “much more aggressive than the governor’s recommendations for the state as a whole.”

She described Kemp’s directives as “minimums that we all need to be doing.”

But unlike many other public health officials, Toomey stopped short of advocating that the governor order all Georgians to shelter at home until the virus is contained.

“It is not simply a public health decision,” Toomey said. “There are also political implications I can’t possibly imagine and economic issues that I do not know about.”

Staff reporters Greg Bluestein and J.D. Capelouto contributed to this article.