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Kemp highlights increasing COVID-19 cases in Hall amid statewide decline
04282020 KEMP
Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference at the Capitol building in Atlanta, Monday, April 27, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. - photo by Alyssa Pointer | Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

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The state is expanding its efforts to educate Georgia’s Hispanic population about COVID-19, starting in Hall County, Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday during a press briefing.

Hall County’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise as decreases are seen statewide, Kemp said. 

The percentage of those cases that are Latino is disproportionately high and rising, according to data provided by the Northeast Georgia Health System.

As of Monday, 56% of the COVID-19 cases confirmed by the system and Longstreet Clinic were Latino patients, according to NGHS.

Kemp said state officials have been monitoring the virus’ effects on the poultry industry, as Georgia, and Gainesville in particular, is a top producer.

State officials are working with the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Mexican consulate and Georgia’s insurance commissioner, John King, on the effort. 

King visited Fieldale Farms on Monday with Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.

“They’re not only working to keep the plant incredibly clean and sanitized but really working with their workforce,” King said. “… Getting into the plant was very elaborate. They checked temperatures and made sure everybody was sanitized and wore protective equipment. They had separations between employees.”

King said he was able to speak directly with employees and managers during the visit.

“These folks are completely essential to the survival of our state and to our nation, and it’s better to go to the source and see what is working and what are the challenges, and how they’re getting through this,” King said. “This is a very important sector of our economy.”

Fieldale Farms President Tom Hensley said Monday there have been 83 positive COVID-19 cases among workers. That compares to 12 reported as of April 17. Fieldale has plants in Cornelia, Murrayville and Gainesville.

Hensley said anyone sent home with the virus and anyone out during testing are still being paid.
“As long as you’re out with the virus, we continue to pay you. There’s no time limit on it,” he said.

There has been one death at the Cornelia plant, and 12 people have recovered and returned to work.

Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles said there have been industry phone calls to share safety measure ideas and best practices between companies.

These best practices for safety have included enhanced sanitation routines at processing facilities, additional handwashing stations, more screening for employees showing signs of illness and staggering breaks to limit the number of people congregating at any one time.

Giles said there has been testing with remote thermometers before shifts begin, and partitions were installed to separate work stations where employees work in close proximity to one another.

King said he was able to thank employees for their work.

“We also have to celebrate this workforce. … This industry is absolutely essential for the survival of our state and our nation. Without food on our plates, our families can’t survive,” he said.

Hensley estimated roughly 25% of the workers are considered Hispanic/Latino.

King said outreach efforts will include working with Spanish-language media and the business community. 

“The governor has given the opportunity to open up (businesses), but at the end of the day, it’s individual responsibility — if we trust our community leaders, our business community, to understand and read the CDC guidance and try to make those changes in their own businesses,” King said.

Kemp said people should not be pushing through illness to go to work. 

“I think what we’re seeing in Gainesville. … is we have to get the community to buy into this. That community, they’re very hard-working. I’ve worked with them for almost 40 years,” he said. “They are going to go to work unless they just absolutely can’t, and that is their culture of being very hard-working people.”

Hall has 1,178 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of 7 p.m. April 28, according to the Department of Public Health. That’s 570.88 cases per 100,000 residents, which is the highest per capita rate in North Georgia. Those numbers lag behind real time as state epidemiologists work to verify data submitted at the local level. Northeast Georgia Health System reported 1,213 confirmed cases from Hall County in specimens it has submitted for testing. NGHS is treating 153 people with confirmed cases in its hospitals, including 88 at its Gainesville location and 24 in Braselton, according to public hospital data posted April 28. It has treated and discharged 269 people.

“Over the past few weeks, as other areas of our state have seen reduced transmissions of the virus, the Gainesville area has experienced an increase in cases, and our hospital partners in the area are seeing more hospitalizations,” Kemp said.

Free testing is being provided for those in need.

NGHS and the nonprofit Good News Clinics provided free COVID-19 testing April 19, with half of the 300 tests coming back positive. 

Additional free testing was offered Tuesday, April 28, to low-income and uninsured Hall County residents who are showing symptoms or have been in contact with those who have tested positive for the virus.

Liz Coates, executive director of Good News Clinics, said more than 500 samples were taken between 4-7 p.m. on Tuesday. She expects the test results to be available by Friday, May 1.

“We had a really large crowd,” Coates said. “It has moved along well. I think we’ve done a lot of education out here.”

Free COVID-19 tests and boxes of food also will be available Friday, May 1, at the Allen Creek Soccer Complex lower field, according to a news release from the Department of Public Health.

The soccer complex has been serving as a DPH COVID-19 testing facility for District 2, requiring referrals from the health department or another medical provider. 

Food will be given to each vehicle at the testing site while supplies last. One package of food per car can be picked up between 8:30 and 5 p.m. or until supplies run out. 

DPH will be there to help register anyone who needs free testing for the coronavirus.

Anyone sick can call 770-531-5600 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays to schedule an appointment for free testing. Appointments are required for testing. 

The complex is at 2500 Allen Creek Road in Gainesville.

To help Hall County handle the increase in cases, the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency is sending a 20-bed unit to Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville. Kemp said the unit will have 10 critical care beds and 10 general hospital beds. It is scheduled to be operational by May 14, Kemp said, a change from the original May 5 opening date.