By Beau Evans, Capitol Beat News Service and Matthew Osborne
ATLANTA – Ahead of an April 30 end to the state’s shelter-in-place order, Gov. Brian Kemp urged Georgians to continue social distancing and to seek testing if they experience common coronavirus symptoms like coughing, fever and shortness of breath.
As of Tuesday evening, Habersham County had 212 cases with 48 hospitalizations and seven deaths, according to the Department of Public Health. That same report said 24,844 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19. There were 4,896 hospitalized with 1,036 deaths.
Habersham Medical Center spokesperson Kesha Clinkscale said none of the four new deaths in Habersham County recorded since noon Monday were at the hospital.
At a news conference Monday, Kemp did not say whether he will extend the statewide shelter-in-place order beyond Thursday, when it is set to end. The order has already been extended once since it was first issued on April 3.
He noted only that the order is currently scheduled to end after Thursday and that he plans to make a decision later this week on what to do next. “I just haven’t made those decisions yet,” Kemp said.
The governor did say, however, that elderly persons and those with chronic health issues will likely need to continue sheltering-in-place well into mid-May, and perhaps for longer than that.
In Habersham County on Sunday, Habersham Medical Center partnered with local law enforcement and first responders to hold a drive-up COVID-19 testing event in Cornelia.
There were 335 people tested, the results of which were still pending at press time Tuesday. Clinkscale said it would take 2-3 business days to get the results.
“There will likely be a surge in positive cases after these results come back,” Habersham County Emergency Services Director Chad Black said Monday. “On weekends, the number usually stays pretty flat because there is less reporting.”
Black and Clinkscale agreed the event went smoothly. Folks were lined up to be tested as early as 9 a.m. even though the event was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m.
Calls to transport COVID-19 patients have been up, as Black said he got 10 notifications last week of such calls in Habersham County. He added that Habersham first responders are in a lot better position now with Personal Protective Equipment than they were in previous weeks, where a surge in calls could have caused them to run out. Now, Black said they have more supplies and 80 new washable suits coming in this week.
Black added that officials in Hall and Habersham counties are working to help quell outbreaks in the Latino communities, both with outreach programs in Spanish and other educational resources.
Georgia’s shelter-in-place order has required people to remain at home except for essential errands like grocery runs and to exercise, and for most businesses to limit their operations only to levels that will keep them financially afloat. As businesses start slowly reopening, Kemp and the state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, stressed that anyone in Georgia who is experiencing common coronavirus symptoms can now receive a diagnostic test. On Monday, Kemp called on those with symptoms to “take us up on this offer.”
“We have the tests, we have the physicians, we have the sites and we have the bandwidth,” Kemp said. “What we need right now is to have more Georgians participate.”
Testing was previously limited to the state’s most vulnerable populations, including the elderly and those with chronic health issues, as well as health-care workers and first responders. In recent weeks, state health officials along with Georgia National Guard members have ramped up testing through mobile clinics and partnerships with companies like Walmart and CVS.
Now, everyone can be tested who shows symptoms including fever, coughing, difficulty breathing, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell.
“We have plenty of testing capacity,” Toomey said Monday. “And we are ramping up our contact tracing capacity.”
Kemp has faced fierce criticism for his decision to allow several close-quarter businesses to reopen this week and last following weeks of mandatory closures. Those businesses include dine-in restaurants, movie theaters, barbershops, gyms and more.
Other establishments like bars, nightclubs and amusement parks will remain close for the time being, Kemp said Monday.
Many health experts and local elected leaders have criticized the reopening decision in light of Georgia’s relatively low testing data compared to other states and a lack of so-called “contact tracing,” which helps officials better pinpoint where outbreaks may be occurring.
Kemp defended his approach as “a measured step forward” that is an option, not a requirement, for struggling businesses to reopen under a host of operational restrictions like physical distancing and routine sanitizing.
“I didn’t order anybody to open any business,” Kemp said Monday. “I simply gave people the opportunity that literally were on the verge, many of them, of losing everything they’ve got.”
Kemp said the state largely has been following federal guidelines for deciding when to let businesses reopen, while also weighing input from local health officials as well as the dire financial situation facing many business owners who have been shuttered for weeks.
“We are looking at depression-like unemployment,” Kemp said. “It has all tumbled off a cliff like it has in every state. But we will come back, and we will come back even stronger.”
On Friday, District 2 Public Health will join the Georgia Mountain Food Bank to offer free food distribution to residents. The event will be held at the lower field at Allen Creek Soccer Complex in Hall County. One package of food per car can be picked up between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. or until supplies run out. In addition, public health will be on hand to assist anyone who is sick to register for an appointment for free testing for COVID-19.
Anyone sick now can call 770-531-5600 to schedule an appointment for free testing. The call center is open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You must have an appointment to be tested. Also, a package of food will be given to each vehicle at the testing site while supplies last.
Beau Evans is a reporter for the Capitol Beat News Service, which is funded through the Georgia Press Education Foundation.