Virus update 1

With the state continuing to rapidly increase coronavirus testing and receiving more supplies from the federal government, the Georgia Department of Public Health announced Thursday that COVID-19 testing is now available to all Georgians who request it.

The announcement came after Gov. Brian Kemp said earlier Thursday that all state residents should schedule screenings either through their local health department or by taking advantage of a new Augusta University mobile screening app, whether they are symptomatic or not.

There are now more than 65 specimen point of collection (SPOC) sites in place throughout the state and an additional 30 mobile units that rotate between various locations. Anyone wanting to be tested can contact their local health department to schedule an appointment at one of the sites.

Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, said Thursday that the state had processed more than 100,000 tests in the past 10 days. The number of tests conducted was up to over 227,000 as of Friday afternoon, and Kemp said Thursday that Georgia had improved its national rank in testing per capita from the mid-40s to 29th.

“Increased testing is critical to understanding where there are hotspots of infection and how best to mitigate them,” Toomey said. She said testing of people who may have COVID-19 but are asymptomatic is especially important as the officials prepare to significantly ramp up a contact-tracing program to try to better track the spread of the virus that has infected more than 32,000 Georgians and led to more than 1,350 deaths around the state as of Friday afternoon.

Toomey said the state plans to add hundreds of workers to the contact-tracing program in the coming weeks. In addition to the roughly 250 who were already in place before the pandemic to help track other infectious diseases, the state is currently training around 200 medical students to help. And there are plans to hire more than 600 workers — out of more than 1,000 applications it has received — over the next couple of months to deploy around the state, Toomey said. She said more details on the program would be revealed next week.

NUMBERS CONTINUE TO GROW

Some private labs have reported backlogs due to the sharp increase in testing, leading to delays in testing results. Kemp said Thursday the state was working to address those issues and boost the labs’ capacity.

With more tests being processed, the state has seen an expected growth in cases. But a lag in reporting of up to two weeks complicates efforts to accurately track the growth rate of cases in a critical time where more and more businesses resume operations after the statewide shelter-in-place order was lifted at the end of April.

“We’re going to continue to follow the data,” Kemp said. “The more we test, the more positives we’re going to see. Our goal was to flatten the curve and build the hospital bed capacity. Our numbers are continuing to look better. That doesn’t mean we’ve got to quit doing what we’re doing. We need to continue to avoid large gatherings.”

Kemp said the state continues to monitor “hot spots” and officials announced a special task force was monitoring and working to address the spread of the virus in Gainesville, Hall County and the surrounding area. One of the primary goals of the task force will be enhancing communication with Spanish-speaking workers, particularly in the area poultry industry which has been hard-hit with infections.

And Kemp and other officials said the state continues to place a high priority on its long-term care facilities, where nearly a fifth of Georgia’s confirmed cases and close to half of its deaths have come from.

Among the 347 facilities listed by the state with confirmed cases, Winder Health Care and Rehabilitation has been particularly hard hit. Six residents of the nursing home have died, and an additional 68 residents and 23 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, as of the latest Department of Community Health report. Eleven more of the facility’s residents were retested Thursday after their initial tests by the Georgia National Guard last week returned “invalid” results due to faulty samples.

Kemp said the DCH is making plans to do in-person inspections of every facility to ensure that all safety and sanitation protocols are being followed.

Winder Health Care had faced a challenge with available testing for its residents and requested emergency help from the state last week. The Guard tested all residents April 30.

Homer Bryson, the director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), said the the availability of test swabs and kits has been a challenge throughout the country. In addition to expanded capacity with private labs, the state will get a supply of 210,000 swabs from the federal government this month, Bryson said.

“They’re in a very tough spot,” National Guard Adjutant General Tom Carden said of the long-term care facilities, adding that the state continues to provide training on proper equipment use and cross-contamination prevention tips. “They’re really working hard to take care of their residents. When we see the data that tells us a facility might be having a problem, that will trigger us to make a call and offer testing. We’re partnering with them to make sure they get through this.”

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