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Governor declares emergency, recommends social distancing, works to increase coronavirus testing
The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is depicted in an illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020. - photo by Associated Press

Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency for the state of Georgia Saturday morning, noting local transmission of the novel coronavirus.

As of Saturday, there are 66 COVID-19 cases in Georgia, which is the state’s largest increase in over a 24-hour period. There are no confirmed cases in Hall.

“In only a matter of days, communities within the metro Atlanta area and North Georgia have seen several cases, including hospitalizations, where the source of infection is unknown,” Kemp said in his address. “Many of these cases have no connection to travel, and the capacity of our health care system remains at the forefront of my mind as we prepare for more local transmission.” 

Coronavirus testing in the state has been limited. Kemp said the state lab is increasing capacity. 

Local Department of Public Health spokesman Dave Palmer said Friday that criteria to get tested included both travel history or exposure to a confirmed positive case and having symptoms of the virus. 

“We’re not in a position to have widespread testing right now, so we’re having to kind of manage the testing and make sure that we can test those people who need to be tested,” Palmer said.

Right now, 100 tests can be processed per day in the state, and officials hope to double that by the end of next week, Kemp said. 

The state is in the process of establishing independent test sites in every major region in Georgia. Kemp said the specific locations are expected to be announced early next week. 

He also strongly advised social distancing after meeting with epidemiologists from Emory University, the University of Georgia, Grady Health System, and Augusta University and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s chief health officer and commissioner of the Department of Public Health. 

“I asked for their medical advice in addressing public health needs and utilizing mitigation tools in the days ahead,” Kemp said in his address. “They all recommended immediate implementation of social distancing measures to flatten the epidemiology curve for exposure and mitigate patient surge at health facilities. Otherwise, we risk a run on critical resources for the sickest patients in our state. Now is the time to act.”

Social distancing means avoiding large gatherings like sporting events and social functions. Many of those have been canceled in Hall County and the region. Kemp noted that President Donald Trump advised limiting in-person meetings, increasing cleanings and canceling work travel.

“If they have not done so already, Georgians need to incorporate social distancing into their everyday lives,” Kemp said.

The Northeast Georgia Health System did not make anyone available for an interview on Friday but did announce it is limiting visitation.

The health system in January created a task force to begin preparing for the possibility of patients with COVID-19. 

“We have been following the guidance of the CDC and are working to ensure staff are diligent in following standard protocol to ask patients about their travel history,” the system’s website states. “In the event that additional preparation is needed, this team will move swiftly to follow any new guidance.”

For most who contract the disease, symptoms are mild, including fever and cough. But older residents and those with underlying health issues face greater risk. Georgia has so far had one death from COVID-19.

Through this new declaration the governor would have emergency powers to enforce all laws, rules and regulations relating to emergency management. Kemp also would receive the ability to take direct operational control of civil forces and helpers in the state. 

The powers from the executive order would give health authorities special abilities like implementing isolation and quarantine for Georgians exposed to COVID-19; establishing protocols to control the spread of the novel coronavirus; and starting an active monitoring program for those the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies as a “Person Under Investigation.”

The order would also suspend restrictions for commercial truck drivers, so carrier crews can provide emergency relief when needed.

The Georgia Composite Medical Board and Georgia Board of Nursing would be able to grant temporary licenses to applicants who are in good standing in other states to assist in addressing health care needs.

Kemp said he has worked with the Georgia General Assembly to appropriate $100 million in emergency funding to address the spread of COVID-19. The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency’s State Operations Center has been fully activated.

The legislature will convene Monday, March 16, to ratify the emergency declaration through a joint resolution. 

Kemp assured the public the state will continue working closely with local health care providers, local government officials, private labs, emergency responders, the CDC and federal counterparts. 

“This public health emergency is unprecedented for the state of Georgia, and I do not take this action lightly,” he said. “It is a more specialized form of a state of emergency and allows for a more robust response to crisis specifically in the health care sector.” 

Read Gov. Brian Kemp's executive order