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Kemp extends school closures as Georgia virus deaths climb to 56
A person is given a test for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing location Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. The testing is not open to the public people must be referred by the health department. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia's governor on Thursday extended an order to keep the state's public schools closed because of the new coronavirus, as the death toll in the state rose to 56.

As of 7 p.m. Thursday, 509 people were hospitalized because of the virus, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. The state is reporting 1,643 confirmed cases, though testing has been limited and results can sometimes take days to receive.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's order keeps K-12 public schools across the state closed through April 24 and closes public colleges and universities for the rest of the semester. Many school districts had already decided to extended closures on their own, after an earlier order signed by Kemp that banned gatherings of 10 or more people.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

With infections spreading rapidly, some hospitals across the country  are already struggling to keep up.

Dougherty County in southwest Georgia has been particularly hard hit. With 156 confirmed cases, the county has an infection rate more than 10 times as high as the rest of the state. A large influx of coronavirus patients has stretched resources thin at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany as officials scramble to find more bed space.

"All three of our intensive care units at this point are all filled with COVID-19 patients," Phoebe Putney Chief Medical Officer Dr. Steven Kitchen said during a news briefing Thursday. "We have no available ICU beds," Kitchens said, adding that emergency room patients are being diverted to other hospitals in the region.

Of the state's 56 confirmed deaths, at least 17 have been in southwest Georgia, and other regional counties also have high infection rates.

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said that two first responders are in "serious condition" because of the virus.

Kemp is set to hold a televised town hall event on the new coronavirus and the state's response Thursday night at 8 p.m. EDT.

With schools closed, the Georgia state Board of Education on Thursday waived a series of state rules and laws in moves that will let school districts graduate seniors and promote other students even if coursework is incomplete. Many of Georgia's 180 local school systems were already exempt from most of the rules under earlier flexibility agreements, but the move extends the flexibility to all. The state also changed the fee structure for enrolling students in online classes offered by the Georgia Virtual School.

Georgia's weekly unemployment filings more than doubled to nearly 12,000 for the week that ended March 21, but did not increase nearly as much as those nationwide or in neighboring states, according to federal data. Georgia Department of Labor spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright said that the state expects a sharp increase in processed claims this week after streamlining its processing systems.

Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday signed an executive order allowing the Georgia Department of Labor to pay 26 weeks of benefits while Georgia's state of emergency continues. That reverses a cut to as low as 14 weeks that lawmakers made in 2012.

Another emergency rule issued by Labor Commissioner Mark Butler allows someone to make up to $300 a week in wages and still receive a full unemployment payment, worth up to $330 a week.

The state earlier waived requirements that people look for work to receive benefits and said it would provide benefits for some people who had to stay home because of the virus threat.

The virus also continued to spread inside Georgia's jails and prisons. Fulton County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said Thursday that four more inmates had tested positive. The four men, ranging in age from 33 to 65, are being treated in quarantine together at the jail. The sheriff's office announced Monday that an inmate in his 30s had tested positive and was hospitalized.

Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at and

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