Coronavirus cases in Georgia exceed 1,600 as deaths top 50

12 COVID-19 cases in Southeast Georgia among 1,643 in the state; 56 deaths reported

A person is given a test for COVID-19 at a drive through 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. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) (John Bazemore, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

As Southeast Georgia on Thursday evening recorded two new COVID-19 cases, the total number of coronavirus cases in the state rose to 1,643, with 56 deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Gov. Brian Kemp spoke about the virus outbreak and the state’s response during a televised town hall event Thursday night. Asked why he had not ordered people to stay home statewide as the virus spreads rapidly, Kemp said he had to balance the needs of all across the state, including 50 counties that had no reported cases. He said he preferred to leave those decisions to local officials.

“I still have arrows in the quiver if you will, if things get worse,” Kemp, a Republican, said as he urged Georgians to follow local orders and social distancing practices.

Af of 7 p.m. Thursday, state data shows, 509 coronavirus patients in Georgia had been hospitalized -- about one-third.

There have been 12 cases reported in the Southeast Georgia area: six in Glynn County, two in Ware County, two in Camden County, one in Charlton County and one in Pierce County.

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Of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia, 57% were between 18 and 59 years old, 35% were age 60 and up, 1% were age 17 or younger and 7% were of unknown age. Of the COVID-19 patients, 50% were female and 46% were male, with the gender unknown for the other 4%.

Metro Atlanta accounts for the largest overall number of cases in Georgia, with Fulton County reporting more than 231 infections. 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.

Dougherty County in southwest Georgia has been particularly hard hit. With more than 160 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 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.

Valdosta State University in Lowndes County said Thursday that a staff member and a faculty member tested positive for COVID-19. The staff member was last on campus March 18 and the faculty member was last reported on campus March 11. The state reported Thursday evening that there were 14 COVID-19 in Lowndes County.

Kemp on Thursday ordered that public elementary and secondary schools remain closed through April 24 in an attempt to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. His executive order also closes public colleges and universities for the rest of the semester.

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.

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.

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 recover.