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Georgia virus death toll rises to 10, total cases at 287
COVID Augusta
Registered nurses and patient care technicians wait Wednesday, March 18, 2020, for their next patient to drive up to be tested for the coronavirus in Augusta. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia's death toll from the coronavirus jumped to 10 on Thursday as state health officials also reported a sizable increase in the number of confirmed infections statewide.

The update from Georgia Department of Public Health more than doubled the number of deaths in the state, which had stood at four Wednesday. The agency said confirmed coronavirus cases now total 287 — up from 197 the day before.

Gov. Brian Kemp noted the latest reports showed the virus appearing in some areas for the first time — including Bibb County in central Georgia, Muscogee County near the Alabama state line and Glynn County on the coast. He said to expect infection numbers to keep growing. 

"The more we test, the more we'll find," Kemp said during an afternoon news conference. "We certainly saw that today and I believe that will continue." 

The health department did not specify where the new deaths occurred. 

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

While urging people to self-isolate at home as much as possible, Kemp said he doesn't plan to order businesses to close and other restrictions — instead leaving those decisions to local governments.

In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Thursday ordered all bars, gyms, movie theaters and other gathering spots to close. Her executive order also limits restaurants to takeout and delivery orders. Fulton County has reported 66 coronavirus infections, the most of any county in the state.

In southwest Georgia, officials in Albany and surrounding Dougherty County announced similar restrictions will take effect Friday and last at least a week. With four deaths and 20 confirmed infections, it's one of Georgia's hardest hit communities outside metro Atlanta. 

Bars, theaters and bowling alleys will be closed across Dougherty County. Grocery stores and other retailers must limit occupancy to 50 or fewer people at a time. Churches will be shuttered except for funerals and people will be barred from gatherings of 10 or more. And anyone confirmed to be infected or awaiting a test result will face misdemeanor charges if caught breaking quarantine.

"This is a very serious, serious matter," said Chris Cohilas, chairman of the Dougherty County Commission. "We have seen already in this community how much this disease has been spread at gatherings at funerals and at church. And we cannot afford to be attacked anymore by that."

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany reported four total deaths Thursday. They included a person who died from cardiac arrest en route to the hospital and later tested positive for the virus, said Dr. Steven Kitchen, the hospital's chief medical officer. 

Kitchen told a news conference that 24 of the hospital's 38 intensive-care beds were occupied with people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results. He said more than 600 people in the area, the vast majority of them well enough to remain home, are awaiting test results.

"Most people seem to be experiencing rather mild symptoms at this point," Kitchen said.

In northern Georgia, Floyd County Coroner Gene Proctor said a 65-year-old Rome woman had died from respiratory failure and complications tied to COVID-19, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. He said she was a member of a Cartersville church linked to other cases.

Georgia has opened 13 drive-thru locations for coronavirus testing and plans more. Kemp cautioned that priority for tests was being given to those at highest risk — the elderly, people who already have chronic illnesses, those in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities and first responders such as paramedics.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican, announced he had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness. Georgia's 235 other representatives and senators, plus legislative employees, are being recommended to self-quarantine through March 30. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican who presides over the state Senate, said he is staying home. 

The General Assembly has suspended its regular session because of the coronavirus outbreak. State officials hired a cleaning crew to sanitize the state Senate chamber, Beach's legislative office and building entrances that Beach's electronic access card shows he used, said Gerald Pilgrim, chief of staff for the Georgia Building Authority. 

Russ Bynum reported from Savannah and Jeff Amy from Atlanta. 

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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