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Georgia coronavirus deaths reach 1,000 amid reopening effort
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp listens as Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner for the Georgia Department of Public Health, gives updates on coronavirus data in the state, during a news conference at the Capitol in Atlanta, Monday, April 27, 2020. - photo by Associated Press

SAVANNAH — Georgia officials reported Tuesday the  coronavirus has killed more than 1,000 people statewide as some local officials urged people to continue isolating at home in spite of the governor's aggressive efforts to reopen businesses and reboot the economy.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said at least 1,036 deaths have been linked to the virus, with more than 24,800 infections confirmed statewide. The deaths include 432 people living in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities in Georgia.

Gov. Brian Kemp has not said whether he plans to extend Georgia's shelter-at-home order that's set to expire after Thursday. The Republican governor has already created gaping loopholes by allowing restaurants to resume limited dine-in service, and permitting hair salons, tattoo parlors, movie theaters and bowling alleys to reopen with restrictions. Kemp said he's also lifting a temporary ban on short-term vacation rentals Friday.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson told reporters Tuesday that Kemp was sending conflicting signals.

"In reality, we're under a stay at home order until April 30," Johnson said. "Yet you can go get your nails done, you can go get a tattoo, you can go to movie theaters, you can go to bowling alleys. It's those kinds of things that leave people confused."

Johnson said over the weekend he noticed increased traffic on Savannah's streets and fewer people wearing masks or keeping a safe distance from others. He urged local businesses to refrain from opening for the time being if they can.

"We are not out of the woods yet and this is hardly the time to become complacent or lulled into a false sense of security," Johnson said.

Kemp's order also strips local governments of any power to impose restrictions of their own. Johnson and others who fear Kemp is moving too fast and risking a resurgence in infections are urging residents to keep staying home and business owners to remain closed.

In hard-hit Dougherty County, which leads Georgia with 117 deaths, many restaurants have heeded local officials' request to keep their dining rooms closed because "it just doesn't feel right right now," said Chris Cohilas, the county's elected chairman.

Cohilas noted one significant sign of improvement. He said Albany's Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital had just 80 coronavirus patients Tuesday, down from 127 two weeks earlier.

Kemp has said it's imperative during the health crisis response to also mitigate deep economic suffering across Georgia. The state Department of Labor last week reported that 1.1 million workers — about one-fifth of the state's workforce — filed for unemployment since the crisis started.

Still, Kemp took fierce criticism when many questioned whether Georgia's data met reopening guidelines by President Donald Trump's administration, which called for a two-week trend of declining new cases, widespread public testing and the ability to trace the contacts of infected people to break the chain of infection.

Officials have argued that Georgia's outbreak peaked in mid-April, but that's not yet clear from the data. The state has in recent days improved testing capacity. Kemp's office said the state reported nearly 13,000 new tests Tuesday — the largest daily number since testing began.

Meanwhile, the state is still scrambling to build a projected 1,000-worker contact tracing effort.

Trump himself criticized Kemp last week, saying: "I wasn't happy with Brian Kemp, I wasn't at all happy."

It took less than two months for Georgia's death toll to reach 1,000 after the Georgia Department of Public Health reported the state's first confirmed coronavirus infections March 2. Kemp announced the state's first death March 12.

Kemp last week issued a new executive order instructing people 65 and older as well as those with medical conditions and residents of nursing homes and other care facilities to stay in place through at least May 13. But the governor said he was still examining data and consulting with Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey about what rules should apply to others.

Kemp's order allowing many close-contact services to reopen also authorized resumption of elective medical procedures such as colonoscopies, joint replacements and dental cleanings that had been suspended.

"The elective procedures are huge," said Dr. Andrew Reisman, a Gainesville physician and president of the Medical Association of Georgia. "It's really the bread and butter, what makes ends meet, in surgery centers and physician offices and hospitals."

Dr. Peter Shatz, chairman of the Georgia Dental Association's innovation task force, said the practices where he works are screening patients by phone before they enter the office and checking their temperatures before putting them in the dentist's chair.

Dentists and hygienists already wore gloves, masks and sometimes face shields. Shatz said now they will wear disposable gowns, plus surgical caps and shoe coverings.

"A restaurant is a little bit different than a dental practice where we can control the flow of patients," Shatz said. "We have certain advantages over other businesses because we are good at keeping things clean."

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