Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said Thursday during a televised “town hall” meeting that a statewide “shelter-in-place” order remains “in the toolbox” for possible use, but he doesn’t want to implement that order at this time.
A newscaster questioning Kemp Thursday referenced the recent plea by Emory University professor Dr. Carlos Del Rio to “act now” to shut down the state, warning that a failure to do so could overwhelm the health care system.
Kemp said he’s having to balance both medical and financial concerns, adding that over 50 Georgia counties still don’t have a COVID-19 case.
“In Jeff Davis County, there are no cases and people are saying we need to be working,” he said. “I hear from people saying they’re ‘worried about losing my home, worried about meals for my kids.’”
Kemp said he has preferred to leave decisions in the hands of local leaders. But he added that he could issue a “shelter-in-place” order if he sees it as necessary.
“I still have arrows in the quiver, if you will, if things get worse,” he said.
On Monday, Kemp ordered that the medically vulnerable remain at home, that gatherings in Georgia have no more than 10 people and that nightclubs and bars close.
Kemp said stopping the spread of coronavirus is up to the citizens of Georgia. He asked citizens to fulfill the “15 days to slow the spread” initiative and to follow his order issued Monday.
“We have about 10 days to go on action I took,” he said. “If we can get our citizens to follow these actions, we can turn this curve. It’s critical that we do that for our health care system.”
Kemp noted that 10 counties in Georgia account for 60 percent of the COVID-19 cases. He said six counties in the country account for five percent of the cases nationally.
Kemp said he anticipates testing “ramping up” in the days to come. He said the slow turn around getting test results will improve.
“Some tests are coming out now that you can test results in 15 to 45 minutes,” he said.
Kemp noted that there are now 23 testing sites in the state.
“We’re making more progress on that every day,” he said.
COMMISSIONER OF HEALTH SPEAKS
Dr. Kathleen Toomey, an epidemiologist who serves as Georgia Department of Health Commissioner, said there are now 1,650 cases statewide.
“By morning it will be higher,” she said. “I’m less focused on the exact number and more focused on how we can get people to focus on prevention.”
Toomey was asked by an interviewer whether she thought there should be a statewide shutdown.
“What’s good for Atlanta may not be the correct thing for these other areas with limited spread,” she said, adding that some areas, like Albany, which has seen a high number of cases, do need “aggressive community mitigation.”
Toomey said the state is doing all it can to provide health care workers with needed equipment.
“We are really working hard to stay on top of that with federal partners, GEMA and private vendors,” she said. “We’re assessing the need of hospitals constantly. We have our first shipment of ventilators to help some of the harder-hit areas.”
The health commissioner noted that the state is even working with medical colleges to get the ventilators they use in training.
“We’re trying to amass needed amounts before it comes to that,” she said.
Toomey was asked how many ventilators are needed and how many are on hand.
“I can’t say off top of my head how many we have or how many we need,” she said. “We need to continue to monitor that and try to have extra on hand. We’re earlier in the epidemic than New York and we have a chance to mitigate this with aggressive contact tracing.”
Toomey acknowledged that testing is limited at the moment after the interviewer asked why the state can’t test asymptomatic citizens to ensure they aren’t spreading the virus.
“The more you test, the better it would be,” she said. “We’re limited by the tests we have.”
ATLANTA MAYOR TALKS
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she would prefer to see a “shelter-in-place” order across the U.S.
“If it were my call, there would be a stay-at-home order for entire country,” she said. “I understand and respect the governor. He is balancing a diverse constituency across the state.”
Bottoms addressed the city’s efforts to ensure the homeless population is cared for during the pandemic. She listed several objectives in serving “a very vulnerable population” and noted that the city has received the donation of a hotel to house homeless individuals who need to be quarantined due to coronavirus.
Bottoms said Atlanta hospitals are already stressed without the coronavirus, especially Grady Hospital.
“In the midst of the virus, heart attacks and car accidents don’t stop,” she said. “So it’s a tremendous concern to me, at this rate, we’ll exceed our capacity in the state by May 3. But hopefully, with proactive measures we can slow the spread. I know there are plans to expand the footprint at many of our hospitals. It is my prayer that is does not come to that in this state.”
STATE DIRECTOR OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT SPEAKS
Homer Bryson, the Georgia Emergency Management director, said GEMA has been overseeing a number of logistical matters in the state’s response to the coronavirus. He noted that the agency is coordinating and managing the 23 state COVID-19 testing sites. He said GEMA is looking for additional bed space for hospitals, while also looking at options to build more hospital space. The agency is working to secure personal protective equipment for health care providers.
He said his agency has responded to natural disasters, such as tornadoes. He said this disaster has a key difference.
“A hurricane or a tornado is coming,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do. This is completely different. It’s in the citizens’ hands in this state. If people will listen to what local governments are telling them, listen to the Department of Public Health, listen to the CDC guidelines, separate ourselves from one another, be cautious when we’re out, then we don’t have that big of an event.”
INSURANCE COMMISSIONER INTERVIEWED
State insurance commissioner John King, who is bilingual, was interviewed briefly Thursday and offered answers in both English and Spanish. He urged those in the Hispanic community who are concerned about their immigration status to get tested if needed.
“We want people to be screened,” he said.
He was asked whether any action will be taken by the state to help renters who may face evictions due to an inability to pay their rent in the crisis. King said the state government defers to local control.
“These are very hard decisions to make,” he said.
KEMP OFFERS FOLLOWUP
Kemp concluded the hour-long televised event, which included interviewers posing questions from their own homes as they practiced social distancing, by urging people to call their doctor or the coronavirus hotline at 844-442-2681 if they have symptoms of the virus.
“The last thing we want is for people to go and transmit this in a doctor’s office waiting room or hospital waiting room,” he said, adding that a plan will be put in place to get the person the care they need in a safe way. “Most people will have no need for hospitalization.”
Kemp was asked why he closed schools until April 24 — why that date?
“It gives us enough time to see where the virus is going to go,” he said. “The data we’re seeing today is two weeks old. That’s the nature of this. We felt that date would allow us to do that. We want our parents comfortable sending back their kids. We want teachers and administrators to be comfortable going back in and not being affected by coronavirus.”
Kemp praised the work of school staff across Georgia who continue to work to educate and feed students.
The governor was asked if he plans to expand Medicaid to help those who lose health coverage due to losing their job.
He said that’s a legislative matter, and the state General Assembly has temporarily shut down due to coronavirus. But he said he spoke directly to President Trump about getting a block grant to “put money where we need it.”
“We’re looking at those issues and have the ability to be flexible,” he said.
The governor said he struggled with putting restrictions on gatherings of 10 or more people.
“I know that’s tough in our faith community,” he said. “I wrestled with that. I asked them to do online services. People used to go to drive-in theater, not they’re going to drive-in church.”
Kemp was asked what job protections will be in place for workers, such as one citizen with a written question, who has three kids, now at home with school canceled, who still need to maintain a job to pay the bills and feed the kids.
He said he hopes the federal stimulus package will offer relief to Georgians in a tough financial spot.
“Help will hopefully be on way as early as April 6,” said Kemp, referencing the planned vote on a stimulus deal Friday. “…That is exactly what federal package is designed to do. We know our people are hurting.”