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Southwest Georgia hard-hit as virus cases and deaths rise
A woman walks across a normally packed parking lot at The Varsity Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Atlanta. The Varsity, known for its chili dogs and onion rings, closed their dining room ahead Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' order limiting restaurants to takeout only in hopes of slowing the spread of coronavirus. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — Cases of the new coronavirus in Georgia continued to climb Friday, as the death toll in the state rose to 14 from 10 a day earlier and at least two communities ordered residents locked down except for essential trips.

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 jumped to 485 on Friday, up from the 287 cases the state was reporting Thursday. 

Although the metro Atlanta counties had the largest overall numbers of cases, the largest number of cases per capita are in Dougherty County in southwest Georgia and Bartow County northwest of Atlanta. 

Death statistics also highlighted how the illness is having an outsized impact on Dougherty County and its main city of Albany. Of the 13 deaths, the Department of Public Health said six are in Dougherty County, while two are in Atlanta's Fulton County, and one apiece are in Cobb, Early, Fayette, Floyd and Gwinnett counties.

Of Georgians who have died, the average age was just under 65, with the oldest being 85 and the youngest 42, according the state Department of Public Health. At least 10 of them had other underlying health conditions.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe complications such as pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Although Gov. Brian Kemp has said he won't order restaurants and other businesses to close, officials in Dougherty County and Athens-Clarke County are ordering residents to stay home unless they're going to work, buying food, seeking medical care or exercising.

"Drastic measures must be taken to decelerate the spread of COVID-19," Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said at a news conference Friday. "We anticipate the results of the more than 1,000 tests we have conducted will confirm we have hundreds of people in Dougherty County with the virus."

Latest statistics also showed the virus is spreading across southwest Georgia from Dougherty County, which has 38 cases. Officials there have said infections were initially spread at two large funerals. Nine other counties in southwest Georgia now have cases, and most of them have confirmed infection rates more than double the state's average, on a per capita basis. Many counties have such small populations that one infection puts them above the state per-capita rate.

Albany-area officials said the state is sending out a team of epidemiologists and seeking a living facility to buy for quarantine purposes. Federal officials earlier bought a former hotel in Marietta as a quarantine site for people who aren't sick enough to be hospitalized, and the state opened a site in Hard Labor Creek State Park and is building a second one at a public safety training facility near Forsyth. 

Officials at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany said they planned to use other physicians who normally don't work in the hospital or handle respiratory diseases to provide extra labor. They also continued appeals for supplies like masks, saying some were trickling in from the community.

In Bartow County, with 40 confirmed cases, County Administrator Peter Olson said during a news conference Friday that officials are working to implement an emergency ordinance restricting gatherings. 

"We've got some bars and restaurants apparently still trying to promote gatherings, and those things are just unwise," Olson said.

At least two Georgia cities imposed nighttime curfews for all residents. Atlanta and multiple suburbs have banned in-restaurant dining, limiting eateries to takeout and delivery service, as well as closing bars, theaters, bowling alleys and other gathering places. Tybee Island banned visitors to beaches, as well as the open consumption of alcohol.

State Insurance Commissioner John King on Friday banned health insurers from canceling policies because of missed payments until further notice, and banned property insurers from canceling business policies, including those that cover lost income, for 60 days.

State Superintendent of Education Richard Woods said Georgia would seek a federal waiver to cancel all standardized tests for public school students. The U.S. Department of Education said Friday it would grant waivers to any states requesting them. The University System of Georgia has canceled in-person commencements at all its public colleges and universities.

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.

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