By Beau Evans—Staff Writer, Capitol Beat News Service
Georgia will be placed under a statewide shelter-in-place order starting Friday through April 13 as coronavirus infections have brought the state’s hospitals to a tipping point, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday.
Public schools will also remain closed for the rest of the school year, Kemp said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
The governor said information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people can spread the virus before showing any symptoms marked “a game changer.” It was at that point he decided to issue a shelter-in-place order.
Additionally, modeling from the University of Washington predicts the state’s hospitals will reach peak capacity on April 23 even with strict so-called social distancing practices being followed, Kemp said.
“We are taking action to protect our hospitals, to help our medical providers and prepare for the patient surge that we know is coming,” Kemp said. “Now is the time to fight and continue to be strong and courageous.”
As of noon Wednesday, more than 4,600 Georgians had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that has sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 139 patients from Georgia.
Kemp said he would sign and publish an executive order Thursday that will include a wide range of provisions for the shelter-in-place rules, including for deputizing law enforcement personnel to enforce the order. The order will also likely exempt some industry sectors like grocery stores, pharmacies and medical supply providers.
“We’re going to have a lot of information in this order,” Kemp said.
As of Wednesday morning, Kemp said the state’s hospitals had a total inventory of 3,520 medical surgical beds and 1,600 ventilators. Several hospitals, particularly in hard-hit areas in the northwest and southern parts of the state, have already been taxed with an influx of patients in recent weeks as the virus took root in Georgia.
On top of hospitals filling up, state health officials are aware of 47 elderly care facilities that have experienced outbreaks of coronavirus, said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state public health commissioner. Seniors and chronically ill persons are most at risk from deadly health effects from the virus.
Earlier this week, the governor authorized around 100 Georgia National Guard members to prop up operations at long-term senior care facilities where cases of coronavirus have been confirmed.
Also, health officials have identified at least five outbreaks stemming from church gatherings plus more outbreaks connected to funerals, Toomey said. She cautioned that any situation in which people congregate now “can be a potential site for transmission.”
Toomey echoed Kemp’s point that a statewide shelter-in-place order now will help hospitals endure a surge of patients expected as this month progresses.
“Now is the time to stop that transmission before the hospitals get overrun,” Toomey said.
“This is absolutely not just like the flu,” she added. “It’s many times more transmissible, and it’s much more deadly.”
Kemp cautioned that with schools closed and people staying home instead of working, state officials and local hospitals are seeing an increase in cases of domestic violence.
And hundreds of thousands of people, suddenly out of jobs or with their work hours severely cut, are “facing financial ruin because of this virus,” Kemp said.
“We will continue to do whatever it takes to help keep our families safe and ensure a strong and prosperous future,” Kemp said.
The governor’s shelter-in-place order follows mounting pressure from health experts and politicians from both parties who have called for a statewide approach. Up to this point, Kemp has largely deferred to city and county authorities to decide whether to issue stay-at-home orders for their areas.
Speaking Wednesday, Kemp acknowledged that many people in Georgia have been voluntarily isolating themselves from social gatherings but that formal rules “vary by city and county.” He said those who defy orders to stay at home and avoid crowds present a danger to the public.
“The reality is that if you do not comply, you are violating the law and you will be facing stiff penalties,” Kemp said. “Even worse, you are literally endangering the lives of those around you, your loved ones and fellow Georgians.”
Facing unprecedented times, the governor urged people in Georgia not to panic and make a run on groceries. He stressed that supply chains for food and other necessities should remain unbroken.
“I want to encourage my fellow Georgians to hang in there,” Kemp said. “We must first overcome the obstacles we have in our path. By doing this, we will get through this together.”