Georgia expands coronavirus testing as deaths reach 584

Soldiers of the Georgia National Guard's 108th Cavalry Regiment prepare to disinfect a nursing home in Cartersville, Ga.
Soldiers of the Georgia National Guard's 108th Cavalry Regiment prepare to disinfect a nursing home in Cartersville, Ga. (Photo by 1st Lt. Nelson Moraga)

Georgia’s public health agency said it’s broadening its definition of who’s eligible for coronavirus testing in the state, where the new virus has killed 584 people and confirmed infections have reached 14,454.

Anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 such as cough, fever or shortness of breath is now considered a candidate for testing at one of the state’s drive-thru sites as long as those patients first get a referral, the Georgia Department of Public Health said. The state previously reserved most testing for high-risk populations, such as the elderly and medical workers, and required referrals from private physicians. People now can also get referrals from local health departments.

Priority for testing will still go to health care workers, first responders and law enforcement officers as well as residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, whether they have symptoms or not, the department said in a news release.

The agency said it’s also expanding the number of sample-collection sites for testing. One new site expected to open Thursday will raise the total to 36 statewide, with more expected within the next week, said Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health.

Nydam said the agency now has about 5,000 test kits in hand and has ramped up its ability to process them.

“As much as anything that affected testing was actually having the kits to collect specimens and the capacity to process those tests,” Nydam said by email. “We are in a much better place now on both counts.”

Gov. Brian Kemp and the state health agency’s commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, have both openly expressed frustration at the limited availability of testing in Georgia. As of Wednesday, just over 4,000 tests for the disease had been processed by state labs, compared with nearly 60,000 Georgia tests handled by commercial labs.

Without more widespread testing, it’s impossible for health officials to accurately track the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus’s toll in Georgia continued to grow. As of Thursday state officials reported another eight deaths and 200 cases overnight. The Department of Public Health calculates that nearly 4% of police testing positive in the state have died and nearly 20% needed hospitalization.

In Southeast Georgia, Ware County has had five deaths and the most cases -- 69 -- and neighboring Piere Couty has had two deaths and 48 cases. Glynn County 44 cases but no deaths, Brantley has one death and 14 cases, Camden has 26 cases and no deaths and Charlton County has five cases and no one has died.

The highest rates of infection have been clustered in mostly rural southwest Georgia, where 83 people have died in Dougherty County -- the highest toll of any county in the state.

Mayor Bo Dorough of Albany, Dougherty County’s largest city, urged residents to remain vigilant not just about sheltering at home and maintaining distance from others to slow the spread of the virus, but also to take care with their finances as unemployment soars.

“In retrospect, I believe most leaders in our country would now concede that greater precautions should have been taken earlier,” Dorough told a news conference Wednesday. “We now realize that, contrary to being an obstacle to the economy, these greater precautions would have been the best investment our country could have made.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that usually clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness and be life-threatening.

The Georgia Republican Party canceled its congressional district conventions that had been scheduled for Saturday, as well as its statewide convention in late May. State GOP Chairman David Shafer said the state executive committee voted to cancel the meetings Monday and unanimously approved emergency rules.

The conventions were supposed to elect delegates to the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in August. Instead, the state party’s executive committee will elect delegates to the national convention that would normally have been chosen at the state convention. Other delegates will be elected by congressional district committees, likely by telephone.

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