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Kemp prioritizes focus on surge capacity, more testing over 'reopening' economy

Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday, April 13, he is “ready for” the day when Georgia’s economy can be fully restarted without restrictions. But he added that his administration right now is focusing its efforts on continuing to ramp up the state’s coronavirus testing capacity and preparing for an anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients as the projected statewide peak inches closer.

Georgia remains under a mandatory shelter-in-place order, which it has been under since April 3, through April 30. Kemp extended the order last week from the original expiration date of April 13, aligning with the Trump administration’s current “stop the spread” guidelines date.

President Trump has spoken about “reopening” the country as early as May 1, while governors around the country have talked about coordinated regional approaches for reopening some businesses.

Kemp said during a press conference at the state Capitol that there are too many moving parts to determine a firm date right now.

“I think a lot of people are thinking about that,” Kemp said when asked about the state’s plans for easing restrictions in comparison to other states. “I would tell people right now our focus is on surge capacity and our ability to test more people. I think we’re going to need that when we go back to work. When you look at other states, we’re a little behind the curve for when our peak is going to be. We need to focus on the mission at hand.”

As of 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 14, there were 14,578 confirmed cases and 524 deaths in the state, according to latest figures from the Georgia Department of Public Health. Those numbers included 65 confirmed cases and three deaths in Barrow County. More than 900 newly-confirmed cases and 44 additional deaths were confirmed Tuesday, and eight more cases in Barrow were confirmed. 

The DPH reported an additional 156 hospitalizations around the state Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 2,858 (19.6 percent of confirmed cases). The department has not released any data on the number of patients who have recovered from the virus or the number of hospitalizations by county.

The numbers are expected to get worse with the state not projected now to hit its peak in cases, demand on hospital resources and daily death totals until some time between April 26 and May 3. That could very well lead to an extension of the stay-at-home order as well as the statewide emergency declaration that is currently in effect through May 13. 

And Barrow County and the broader northeast Georgia region could see a later peak than May 3. Supriya Mannepalli, chair of Northeast Georgia Medical Center's Infection Prevention and Control Committee, said the Northeast Georgia Health System's current modeling suggests a mid-May peak in the region, given the demographics and current trends in the 5,000-square mile area the four-hospital system services. 

More than 61,700 tests had been conducted and processed around the state as of 7 p.m. Tuesday, with more than 23 percent returning positive results. Those testing numbers have been boosted significantly through implementation of a state plan in conjunction with the University System of Georgia to boost the daily testing capacity as well as other partnerships with private entities, but the state continues to lag behind most of the rest of the country in testing.

"The status quo is unacceptable," Kemp said while announcing the state would expand its screening criteria to people who are asymptomatic but have had direct contact with coronavirus patients and “critical infrastructure” workers. Rather than needing a doctor's referral, patients will be able to make a testing appointment through their local health department, Kemp said.

According to a Tuesday night news release from the DPH, elderly residents, health care workers, first responders, people living in long-term care facilities and people with underlying medical conditions who show symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath) will still be prioritized. Caregivers of people in those groups as well as people with symptoms who aren't part of those groups may also be approved for testing, as capacity allows, according to the release.

Next in the pecking order would be health care workers, first responders and other "critical infrastructure" workers who have no symptoms but may have been exposed to COVID-19, along with residents of any long-term care facility or other group residential setting experiencing an outbreak. 

Kemp on Monday touted the progress the state has made in preparing for an expected surge in patients, including a plan to convert a part of the World Congress Center in Atlanta into a 200-bed hospital for patients with the capacity to expand to 400 beds if needed.

“We need to be firing on all cylinders to prepare for the weeks and days ahead,” he said.


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‘The worst is still to come’: NGMC Barrow officials say hospital managing capacity well, but prepare for mid-May virus peak in region

Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow, along with the four-hospital Northeast Georgia Health System in general, is managing its capacity “well” currently amid the coronavirus pandemic, hospital officials said this week. But they cautioned that could change “very quickly” as hospitals around Georgia prepare for a surge of patients with the virus projected to peak in the state over the next month.

“The big concern we all have is the uncertainty of what’s to come in the weeks ahead,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, chair of NGMC’s Infection Prevention and Control Committee.

As of 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 14, there were 14,578 confirmed cases in the state and 524 deaths had been reported from COVID-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes. In Barrow County, 65 cases had been confirmed and three deaths had been reported as of the latest update by the Georgia Department of Public Health.

During a press conference Monday, April 13, Gov. Brian Kemp said the latest projected peak dates for cases, demand on hospital resources and daily deaths statewide, according to the models most often cited by state officials, range between April 26 and May 3. But as different parts of the country hit their peaks at different times, it’s also likely different parts of Georgia will as well. NGMC officials are not expecting the virus to reach its peak in the northeast Georgia region until mid-May.

“That means the worst of this pandemic is still to come in our communities,” Mannepalli said, “and it reinforces why it’s so important for people to continue to stay home as much as possible and wear masks while they’re out in public. That’s the only way to try to reduce the threat.”

Sunita Singh, public relations manager for NGMC Barrow, said the Northeast Georgia Health System’s projection model takes into account “the specific demographics and current case trends” of the system’s 5,000-square-mile service area in determining when the virus may peak in the region.

“We have a team that consistently revisits our projections to help us adjust resources and staffing to meet the need,” Singh said.

IMPACT ON THE SYSTEM

Several NGMC officials responded Monday to written questions from The Barrow News-Journal about the impact of the virus on the hospital system.

While he didn’t specify total numbers at each hospital and cautioned that “the numbers change hour-to-hour,” NGMC Barrow president Chad Hatfield said that over the last two weeks the Barrow, Braselton, Gainesville and Dahlonega branches have seen and been treating in the range of 140-160 patients who have either been confirmed to have or were suspected of having COVID-19.

Last month, the health system opened mobile units in Gainesville and Braselton to prepare for a surge in patients. And the hospitals have delayed elective procedures and urged the public to take advantage of remote video doctors’ visits and appointments in non-emergency situations.

Hatfield said NGMC Barrow has seen its volume of patients in the emergency department and hospital beds cut roughly in half since those measures were implemented and the other hospitals in the system are seeing a similar dip.

“We believe that is a good sign that many people are taking the expert clinical advice seriously, and they’re only coming to the hospital if they truly need that level of care,” Hatfield said. “We also want to stress to people that it’s still important that you come to the hospital when you’re having true, life-threatening emergencies like chest pain, stroke, fractures and more.

“Always call 911 and follow the directions of first-responders.”

SOME STAFFERS HAVE BECOME SICK

Like most hospitals around the state and country, the Northeast Georgia Health System has had any employees test positive for COVID-19, said Sandy Bozarth, NGMC’s infection prevention and control manager.

Bozwarth didn’t specify how many employees from hospital to hospital had contracted the coronavirus or identify any major issues, but she said all employees are advised to practice “meticulous hand hygiene and cough etiquette” and the system is continuing to follow CDC guidelines in an effort to protect its staff, patients and the community as much as possible.

Any employee who exhibits any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 is required to be evaluated by the system’s employee health team and may be allowed to return to work, asked to monitor their symptoms from home or tested for the virus, Bozarth said. Employees who test positive or are awaiting results are not allowed to return to work until at least seven days have passed since the onset of symptoms, and they must be fever-free without the use of medication for at least 72 hours and have improved respiratory symptoms, she said.

“After those employees return to work, they must wear a mask until symptoms disappear or until 14 days have passed since the onset of symptoms – whichever is longer,” Bozarth said. “They are also restricted from contact with patients with severely compromised immune systems for at least 14 days.”

‘TREMENDOUS’ OUTPOUR OF SUPPORT

Hospitals around the country have been heavily-strained by — and more employee sicknesses have been reported as a result of — shortages of protective equipment and other materials.

Hatfield said the NGHS is managing its personal protective equipment (PPE) supply by “getting creative.”

“We’re working with new suppliers than we have in the past, the state is assisting us with shipments, volunteers are sewing masks and gowns, and several community organizations are helping us explore things like 3D printing masks and face shields,” Hatfield said.

Hatfield said some employees have flexed outside of their normal jobs to help with sewing, and many community volunteers have helped with sewing.

Donations to the system’s COVID-19 Relief Fund and community mask drive have also been a boost, he said, adding that the system has received more than 6,000 cloth covers for N95 respirator masks and more than 1,000 4-ply surgical masks.

“The outpouring of support has been tremendous,” he said.

Hatfield said more help is needed from the community in sewing isolation gowns and 4-ply surgical masks. People can find instructions by going to nghs.com/COVID-19 and clicking, “How You Can Help.”

"I wish I had words to express the gratitude and appreciation for all the community support,” Hatfield said in a message to the community. “Thank you for your monetary donations to the NGHS COVID-19 Relief Fund, sponsored lunches for our staff and donation of necessary supplies. Your support helps us continue to source scarce supplies like masks, face shields, goggles, hand sanitizer and isolation gowns to protect our healthcare workers – and makes them feel valued and appreciated.

“With our collective voice, NGMC Barrow thanks you for your support. Please continue to stay home as much as possible, and stay safe!"


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BOC approves COVID-19 hazard pay for first responders

The Barrow County Board of Commissioners approved a hazard pay plan for its frontline first responders Tuesday, April 14, amid the coronavirus pandemic, along with a pandemic illness personnel policy that outlines procedures for those workers who become sick or are potentially exposed to the virus.

Under the hazard pay plan, 182 eligible Barrow County Emergency Services employees and sheriff’s deputies will receive an additional $250 per month per pay period during the duration of the statewide emergency period (which currently runs through May 13) and any other local emergency declaration. They will also receive an additional 25 hours per month of paid time off during the emergency period in the event they become sick and are not able to work.

The plan is expected to cost over $45,500 per month with a three-month projected cost of more than $136,500. The first payments will be made April 22, county manager Mike Renshaw said.

The plan will be paid for primarily through the county’s General Fund contingency funds, which currently total $273,400.

“The intent of those funds is to address any unanticipated expenses we may have,” Renshaw told the board, “and I think you would all would agree this pandemic is certainly one of those (situations).”

Renshaw said that as of April 8, at least four BCES first responders and four sheriff’s deputies had been required to undergo testing after possible recent exposures to COVID-19, and all the test results had returned negative. Those numbers did not account for a Barrow County Detention Center corrections officer, who told The Barrow News-Journal she tested positive for COVID-19 last month and spent three days in an Athens hospital. She has been isolated at her Barrow County home since March 31 while recovering from the virus.

Because of the heightened exposure risk for the frontline responders, Renshaw said he believed a hazard pay supplement was warranted. He said several other counties in the area, as well as the City of Atlanta, had approved similar plans.

“I believe we’re proposing a very reasonable and affordable plan during this unprecedented time,” Elizabeth Bailey, the county’s human resources director, said.

SPRING SPORTS REGISTRATION FEES REFUNDED

In another coronavirus-related vote Tuesday, the board approved refunding the full $51,741 that Barrow County Leisure Services collected in spring sports registration fees between baseball, softball, track and field and volleyball.

Each of the seasons were canceled due to the pandemic. The county had spent a little more than $25,000 of those fees in purchasing and distributing team uniforms, and the board had the option to keep that money.

But Renshaw said he and county leisure services director Dan Magee consulted with other recreation departments in the area and determined a full refund would be a “best practice.”


Primary postponed to June 9

Georgia's primary election, including the presidential preference primary, has been postponed three weeks to June 9 amid the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced April 9.

The general primary election had been scheduled for May 19 and the presidential primary originally scheduled for March 24 had been pushed back to that date as well as the virus began its spread across Georgia.

But Raffensperger said the primary needed to be delayed again out of health concerns for voters and poll workers if early voting had begun April 27 as planned. Early voting is now scheduled to begin May 18 and the voter registration deadline is May 11.

The announcement came a day after Gov. Brian Kemp extended the statewide public health emergency declaration until May 13 and extended the statewide shelter-in-place order through the end of April.

Raffensperger said the extension of the emergency declaration gave him the authority to further delay the primary.

“This decision allows our office and county election officials to continue to put in place contingency plans to ensure that voting can be safe and secure when in-person voting begins and prioritizes the health and safety of voters, county election officials, and poll workers," he said in a news release.

Raffensperger said his office had received reports of "mounting difficulties" from county election officials, particularly in southwest Georgia, and that it was not feasible for early in-person voting to begin April 27 when the virus is not currently projected to peak in the state until around April 24.

While all of Georgia's 6.9 million active voters were mailed absentee ballot request forms and encouraged to vote by mail, in-person voting locations must remain open.

“I certainly realize that every difficulty will not be completely solved by the time in-person voting begins for the June 9 election, but elections must happen even in less than ideal circumstances,” Raffensperger said. “Just like our brave health care workers and first responders, our county election officials and poll workers are undertaking work critical to our democracy, and they will continue to do this critical work with all the challenges that the current crisis has brought forth. This postponement allows us to provide additional protection and safety resources to county election officials, poll workers, and voters without affecting the November election.”

People can still mail in their absentee ballot request forms with the May 19 date on them and they will be processed. An absentee ballot with the June 9 date will then be sent to them.

Anyone who already voted in the presidential preference primary before it was postponed will have their vote counted and all others will have the chance to make their selection.

Barrow County elections director Monica Franklin said last week her office had received over 4,000 absentee ballot applications and was "working very hard to get the requests entered into our system."

While there have been various media reports of poll workers quitting around the state, Franklin said most poll workers in Barrow had indicated they were willing to work the May 19 date and were being contacted to see if that would still be the case for the June 9 date.

"We have a very dedicated group of citizens that love what they do and I could not ask for a better group of workers," Franklin said.