During televised town hall, Gov. Kemp pleads for the public’s help in containing coronavirusGov. Brian Kemp speaks during a televised town hall on March 26. Screen shot taken from a live feed of the town hall event.
By Cathi Harris, contributor
Atlanta, GA – Georgians will continue to see the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 soar as testing for the virus expands across the state in the coming weeks. But it is still vital for everyone to heed recommendations for hygiene and social distancing if we are to avoid overwhelming our health care system, officials warned Thursday.
“There is no vaccine, there is no cure. There is only us,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a televised town hall broadcast statewide. “If we are to beat back this virus, we must work together to do everything we can to slow the spread.”
The state is rapidly expanding its ability to test suspected cases of COVID-19 and has set up 23 new testing sites statewide over the past week. However, there are still not enough tests to be able to widely test the whole state. Testing, for now, will be focused on patients in hospitals with symptoms consistent with the virus, healthcare workers, those in nursing homes or other facilities where there is a particularly high risk, and those who are close contacts of people known to have been infected.
“We feel like those are the areas where it is needed the most — especially the health care workers who are on the front lines, and then those who are medically fragile and at highest risk,” Kemp said.
The state is still working on getting more test kits and tests that can be processed faster. It is still taking days to get test results back, though a new test recently approved by the FDA would yield results in 15 to 45 minutes, he said.
“We are doing better, but still not where we need to be,” he said. “We need to get the tests back sooner.”
The governor defended his decision to not issue a shelter-in-place order for the entire state, the way that some cities and counties in metro Atlanta have. He instead ordered a more limited order that asked those who are medically fragile to stay home, and restricted public gatherings to fewer than 10 people unless all participants were able to stay at least six feet apart.
“Unlike Mayor Bottoms and other leaders, I have to make decisions for the entire state,” he said. “What makes sense for Atlanta or Fulton County may not make sense in counties that have not yet seen one confirmed case.”
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People in those areas are worried that they will lose their homes and livelihoods, Kemp said. “Already there are so many people that [have experienced that] just over the course of a few days. That situation weighs heavily on me.”
The governor did urge people to heed the guidance of their local officials and stay home as much as possible to slow the spread of the virus.
“I don’t want to be so focused on testing that we disregard the need for safe social distancing,” Kemp said.
Hospitals at or near capacity
The state is focusing on aggressive testing and contact tracing in the areas that are seeing the highest numbers of cases and areas of high risk to quickly help “flatten the curve” and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, said Kathleen Toomey, director of the Georgia Department of Public Health.
“As we do more testing, we will see those numbers go up rapidly. We had many more reported today and by tomorrow it will be more,” she warned.
The state is also working with hospitals to locate more ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. A shipment of ventilators is expected next week.
They have also found ventilators that were used in medical training programs that have been repurposed for use in hospitals if needed.
“And, in some cases, anesthesia machines can be used,” she said. “We are working to stay on top of the need and to anticipate so that we don’t have a situation where there is a shortage.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that the city and state were working together on efforts to help hospitals in the metro area that are expected to be impacted by the outbreak.
“Grady was already in a difficult position due to the flood a few months ago,” Bottoms said. “Our information indicates that [their ICU] is already at 90 percent capacity. And, heart attacks and car accidents don’t stop just because there is a pandemic. They still have to treat all the patients they have.”
Atlanta officials are working with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), to look at ways to add extra capacity.
Bottoms serves as a member of the state coronavirus task force and is working on addressing issues specific to people who are homeless or who might become displaced due to the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We have identified objectives that we have forwarded to the governor related to this population,” Bottoms said.
Those objectives are: preventing people from losing housing; improved screening and testing for the virus among people who are homeless; options for isolation and quarantine for those who are infected; and transportation for people to and from places where they could be quarantined.
The city is beginning to implement measures to address these issues in Atlanta and a local “Angel donor” has offered the use of a hotel site to be used for isolation space for people who do not have a place to isolate themselves.
Questions about healthcare costs, unemployment
With so many Georgians suddenly unable to work, many questions sent into the televised town hall concerned whether people without health insurance would be able to access testing for the coronavirus and whether they would be able to pay for their medical bills in the event they became ill.
“Absolutely, if you are sick and have symptoms, please call the state hotline,” said John King, the Georgia Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner. “We do not want people who are sick to spread this in the community. You will be able to get the test, if your healthcare provider feels it is needed, free of charge.”
The State of Georgia has a new COVID-19 hotline. If you believe that you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to the novel coronavirus, please contact your primary care doctor or an urgent care clinic. Please do not show up unannounced at an emergency room or health care facility. Hotline:(844) 442-2681. Source: Georgia Department of Public Health.
When asked whether the state would expand Medicaid to cover those who had lost health coverage due to the pandemic, Kemp said that would be up to the legislature, but that he hoped the stimulus bill under consideration in Congress would provide some assistance for immediate needs.
“We have been in conversation with the President and with our Congressional representatives and discussed the issue of whether block grants would be available to the states to have funding that could cover these kinds of needs,” he said.
Asked about his executive order requiring Georgia public schools to remain closed until April 24, Kemp said that he felt that they needed to be closed that long in order to know whether the state was still seeing new cases or if the epidemic had started to wane.
“As Dr. Toomey has said, the data we are seeing now is really two weeks old,” he says.“Two weeks from now, we are really going to be seeing the situation as it is today. I felt that by [April 24] we might have a better picture about where we are with the virus.”
The closures may be extended if the situation warrants it.
As of Thursday night, there are 1,643 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state of Georgia and 56 deaths. The counties with the highest number of cases so far are Fulton County with 231, Dougherty County with 164 and DeKalb County with 137.
People who feel they may have COVID-19 are urged to call the state Department of Public Health hotline at 844-442-2681, even before they contact their doctor or visit an urgent care clinic.
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