ATLANTA – Three additional deaths were attributed to the coronavirus Sunday in Georgia, bringing the total to 23, with 600 confirmed cases reported statewide, according to health officials.
As of Sunday afternoon, no cases had been reported in Bulloch County, said Bulloch Public Safety Director Ted Wynn.
While schools and colleges statewide have been closed, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has refrained from ordering restaurants and other businesses to shut down, leaving local governments to decide whether and how to impose restrictions aimed at slowing the outbreak.
The 23 people who have died from COVID-19 in Georgia range in age from 42 to 85, and at least 19 of them had underlying conditions, according to Sunday's Georgia Department of Health update.
Dougherty County, where Albany is the county seat, appears to be particularly hard hit, with four dozen confirmed cases and six deaths. Local officials there ordered residents to stay home unless they're going to work, buying food, seeking medical care or exercising. On Sunday, the mayor and county commission chairman issued an executive order making the conditions of the shelter-in-place order more stringent, including requiring essential businesses like grocery stores not to exceed 50% occupancy.
Local government and medical officials said Sunday in a news conference broadcast on Facebook that they were extremely concerned by reports of people continuing to gather in groups. They said they're also aware that some people who have tested positive for the virus or are awaiting test results are not quarantining themselves at home as directed.
“I don't think folks are taking this as seriously as we should,” Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said, noting that the coroner has said people are dying and medical professionals have said the virus is very contagious. “We can't wait until we are infected to stop the spread.”
County commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said “drastic and swift action” is needed to prevent additional economic fallout or further strain on medical resources.
Dougherty County also announced that the district attorney's office would close through Friday after an employee there tested positive, and that anyone who spent more than 10 minutes there from March 9 to March 13 should quarantine at home for 14 days starting with the last day they visited the office.
Athens-Clarke County, where the University of Georgia has closed its dorms, classrooms and dining areas, has imposed some of the toughest restrictions by ordering residents to stay home except for work, doctor visits or other necessities.
The Atlanta area reported the highest number of infections, with more than 100 cases and two deaths in Fulton County alone. But the outbreak has not been limited to the area around the capital city: More than one-third of Georgia's 159 counties have reported at least one confirmed case.
The virus causes only minor flu-like symptoms in most people, who recover in a matter of weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death in some, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Severe cases are often only able to breathe with respirators.
The three new deaths reported Sunday were in Bartow, Cobb and Fayette counties, according to state health department numbers. Bartow County had nearly 60 cases.
Robins Air Force Base in central Georgia declared a public health emergency on Saturday after a civilian employee became its first confirmed case. A base news release said people who were potentially affected are being notified, and the emergency status reflects “the moderate disease threat posed by COVID-19 and the risk of exposure to personnel.”
As the spring break season arrives, local governments have closed public beaches at Tybee Island and St. Simons Island on the Georgia coast. Officials have also shut down Jekyll Island, a state park.
Georgia has opened at least 13 drive-thru locations for virus testing and plans more. Kemp says priority for tests is being given to those at highest risk — the elderly, people who already have chronic illnesses, those in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities and first-responders such as paramedics.