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ATLANTA — More than 100,000 Georgians have been confirmed to have coronavirus infections, as the number of people currently sick enough with COVID-19 to be hospitalized pushed past 2,000 on Tuesday.
The milestones came as Gov. Brian Kemp urged local officials to join in his push for voluntary mask-wearing in public, even while acknowledging that some local officials want him to go further.
"We don't need a mandate to have Georgians do the right thing, but we do need to build strong, public support," Kemp told mayors and county commissioners on a conference call Tuesday, according to a statement released by the Republican's office. "Let's work together — with a unified voice — to remind Georgians what's effective and important in this fight against COVID-19."
Georgia has averaged more than 20,000 tests a day over the past week, the highest level on record since the pandemic began. That high level of testing could account for some of the increase in new confirmed infections. But the number of cases is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
But an increasing number of people are sick enough to enter the hospital, a number that has doubled to more than 2,000 in the last two weeks. Deaths from the respiratory illness have been increasing more slowly, which could indicate that doctors are getting better at treating the disease, or that younger, healthier people are getting sick. But deaths typically lag hospitalizations, and could increase in the future. The number of confirmed fatalities rose to at least 2,899 in Georgia on Tuesday.
The share of critical care beds in use statewide rose to 82%, the highest share on record since the state began releasing that data in mid-April. One of Kemp's prime goals has been to avoid overloading hospitals, which could lead to much worse outcomes.
Board members in the state's largest school district, Gwinnett County, voted Tuesday to push back the start of school by a week to give teachers more time to plan, but otherwise continued with the district's plan to let parents of its 180,000 students choose by Friday whether to keep kids home and have them learn remotely or send them back to school full-time. All teachers and students will be required to wear masks in school. Another large school district, Cobb County, earlier pushed back its start date by two weeks.
Kemp is urging voluntary compliance but has said he won't order masks to be worn statewide. The city of Savannah has ordered all people inside businesses to wear masks, even though the move appears to overstep Kemp's earlier orders that cities and counties can't make rules that go beyond state rules. Athens-Clarke County, Kemp's hometown, is expected to consider a mandatory mask order Tuesday.
Instead of new rules, Kemp on Tuesday urged local officials to do more to enforce current restrictions on how businesses, citizens and others are supposed to operate.
"I know some want us to roll back the reopening and others want us to keep moving forward," Kemp said. "But here's the question: are folks following the current executive order? If not, let's get to work."
DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who was on the call with Kemp Tuesday, said he's frustrated because he feels like the county is on its own, looking for ways to fight the virus despite restrictions from the state and lack of leadership from Washington.
"That's where the war is being fought," Thurmond said. "It's defaulted to the local level."
Thurmond said he has considered an executive order to mandate masks, but has decided against it for now, because he's concerned that police would be in an "very difficult situation" if they tried to enforce it.
"If the governor isn't going to make everyone wear a mask, he should lift the restrictions on local elected officials," Thurmond said. "It's not an either-or proposition."