ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp announced Friday that Georgia would increase hospital bed capacity as COVID-19 hospitalizations surged, the state set a new single-day record for coronavirus infections and he clashed anew with Atlanta's mayor.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told residents of the state's largest city to stay home except for essential trips and for restaurants to limit themselves to takeout, but the Republican Kemp has barred local officials from taking actions stronger than his statewide mandates. Bottoms on Wednesday ordered people to wear masks, another move Kemp says is legally void.
The city has previously said its guidelines are voluntary, although Bottoms claimed Wednesday she does have the authority to order masks. Augusta on Friday became the latest large Georgia jurisdiction to order masks.
"Mayor Bottoms' action today is merely guidance — both non-binding and legally unenforceable," Kemp said in a statement. "As clearly stated in the governor's executive order, no local action can be more or less restrictive, and that rule applies statewide."
Bottoms is under consideration by Joe Biden as his Democratic vice presidential running mate and announced this week she had contracted the coronavirus. She and Kemp have clashed several times recently.
"Georgia reopened in a reckless manner and the people of our city and state are suffering the consequences," Bottoms said.
In April, Kemp decided Georgia would be among the first states to loosen restrictions.
Newly confirmed cases reported Friday in Georgia totaled nearly 4,500, surpassing the old daily record by more than 1,000. Experts say many more people are infected, but never tested. The number of people hospitalized for the virus rose above 2,400 on Friday, more than doubling in the past two weeks.
The state will contract for 100 new hospital beds at an unnamed Atlanta-area hospital and will reactivate an overflow hospital at the mammoth state-owned convention center in downtown Atlanta, Kemp's office announced Friday.
Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce, in an email to reporters, said that as backlogged commercial testing services continue reporting results, Georgia expects more cases.
"Following a drop-off in specimens collected over the holiday weekend, we now expect a trend of higher case numbers as new results arrive," she wrote.
More than 111,000 cases have now been confirmed in Georgia, with the number of confirmed deaths rising Friday to 2,965. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. Most recover, but some can become severely ill or die.
St. Joseph's/Candler hospital system, which operates two of Savannah's three hospitals, has seen a big jump in coronavirus patients. The hospitals were treating 63 COVID-19 patients on Friday, compared to 12 a month earlier. Only six current virus patients were in critical care, said St. Joseph's/ Candler spokesman Scott Larson.
"Although we're seeing a significant increase in admitted patients who are COVID-19 positive, they are overall lower acuity and they have shorter hospital stays," Larson said. "They're also younger than what we were seeing earlier in the pandemic."
The two Savannah hospitals can open combined 115 additional beds as needed — a that number will soon increase to 145. Larson said roughly 20 overflow beds were in use Friday.
Georgia reported 82% of critical care beds were in use Friday, down slightly from Thursday.
Savannah-Chatham County Schools Superintendent Ann Levett told reporters rising infections mean it's unsafe to open classrooms in the 37,000-student district. She will ask the school board to continue online classes when the new school year starts in August. Atlanta Superintendent Lisa Herring said Friday she will ask board members on Monday to approve instructing students remotely for the first quarter, delay school until Aug. 24 and drop 10 days from the district's instructional year.
Georgia's largest school districts have typically been letting parents choose between in-person and online classes. But 19 of the 25 largest districts plan to offer five-day-a-week classes beginning in August.
Broce said Georgia is also negotiating for additional capacity to process more tests on its own, reducing reliance on private labs.
Although hospitalizations have soared, there has not been a corresponding increase in deaths. But some experts warn that could change because deaths usually trail hospitalizations. Broce wrote that the state is seeking to increase beds in part because hospitals are trying to continue providing elective treatment, averting the financial losses when revenue nosedived this spring after elective treatments were banned.
The state in April set up a 200-bed overflow hospital at the Georgia World Congress Center, but dismantled it, moving the beds to Milledgeville. Now 120 beds will return to the convention center. Smaller overflow pods are operating in Albany, Gainesville and Macon, and Broce said one is nearly ready in Rome. Broce said the state continues to pay for and provide almost 900 extra workers to "dozens" of health care facilities using a private staffing company that still has more capacity.
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