ATLANTA – Georgia's confirmed coronavirus caseload doubled in just three days to nearly 2,200 people infected and 65 deaths, state health officials said Friday.
The surge came as Gov. Brian Kemp defended his decision to refrain from imposing a statewide shelter-in-place order. “I still have arrows in the quiver if you will, if things get worse,” the Republican said in a televised town hall meeting Thursday night.
“You have people saying look, we need to be working. I’m worried about losing my home, I’m worried about getting meals for my kids. And so those are the kinds of things we’re balancing,” Kemp said.
Kemp has left it to Georgia's city and county leaders to issue a patchwork of local shutdown orders as limited testing shows the outbreak spreading across the state. The Georgia Department of Public Health said COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in more than 100 of Georgia's 159 counties.
In Bulloch County, county commissioners discussed a possible curfew during a special called meeting Friday, but no action was taken at the meeting.
The commissioners will meet again Tuesday, and possibly enact a curfew and other measures to further protect residents from the COVID-19 virus, said Bulloch County Commission Chairman Roy Thompson.
“We discussed (Gov. Kemp’s) executive order, a (possible) curfew and social distancing,” he said.
As of Friday at noon, no Bulloch County resident had yet tested positive for the coronavirus, according to official Georgia Department of Health figures. However, an out-of-town patient at Southern Family Medicine tested positive, the medical group announced Thursday.
Thompson said commissioners are concerned about groups of people still gathering and not observing precautions such as social distancing. During Friday’s discussion, commissioners spoke of a possible future curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., he said.
Bulloch County Emergency Management officials spoke to the group, bringing them up to speed on the latest COVID-19 numbers and information, said Public Safety/EMS Manager Ted Wynn. Wynn and Thompson each said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch and staff attorney Jeff Akins would work on local ordinances regarding the proposed curfew and penalties should people disobey.
Southwest Georgia continues to suffer at a far greater rate than the state as a whole after the virus spread among well-wishers at funerals in Albany, the Dougherty County seat. Dougherty on Friday reported 12 deaths among more than 190 confirmed infections, more than all but Fulton County, which also reported 12 deaths among a caseload topping 300.
Because testing remains limited as the outbreak grows exponentially, many people moving around their communities may not know they've inhaled the virus until well after they've infected others. Particularly risky are places where people who aren't isolating share the air with others, since federal researchers have found the highly contagious virus can live in the air for several hours.
Most infected people experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, but a fraction of people suffering more severe illnesses can require respirators to survive, and as as the caseload rapidly grows, hospitals are bracing for a coming wave of patients.
With every intensive-care bed occupied at Albany's Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, administrators have been scrambling to find more health care workers to run a sister facility across town.
Albany's death toll now includes a 49-year-old inmate from nearby Lee State Prison who tested positive for COVID-19 and died Thursday at a hospital, the Georgia Department of Corrections said. Five other inmates and four staff members at the same prison also were infected; three were hospitalized while the others recover in isolation, the agency said.
Another inmate has been infected at Phillips State Prison in Buford, northeast of Atlanta, and was being held in medical isolation at the prison. Movement was being restricted at both prisons, but inmates still had access to medical care, showers and hygiene products, the department said.
Local officials have been taking action since the Georgia Municipal Association advised all 538 cities in the state to order curfews from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and close gyms, movie theaters and other businesses. New emergency ordinances in Cartersville and surrounding Bartow County took affect Friday, with violations punishable by $1,000 fines and up to two months in jail.
Kemp has extended public school closures through April 24, shuttered bars and nightclubs, banned gatherings of more than 10 people and ordered those with serious medical conditions as well as anyone exposed to the virus to stay home.
They include a growing number of lawmakers: State Rep. Matthew Gambill, a Cartersville Republican, tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday and is recovering at home, said Kaleb McMichen, spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston.
Gambill has experienced mild symptoms and has been in self-quarantine since the weekend of March 14, after learning he had been exposed to someone infected, McMichen said. The lawmaker did not return to the Capitol for a special session March 16 to address the pandemic. Five members of the state Senate have also confirmed they contracted the coronavirus.
Statesboro Herald reporters contributed to this report.