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More than a third of counties in Georgia report at least one confirmed case of COVID-19
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The Northeast Georgia Medical Center prepares its new COVID-19 mobile unit on Thursday, March 19, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

SAVANNAH — Coronavirus deaths in Georgia reached 20 on Saturday, as the number of confirmed infections statewide topped 550 and hit nine in Hall County. 

The new deaths reported Saturday evening by the Georgia Department of Public Health marked a 42% increase from the previous total of 14. More than one-third of Georgia's 159 counties have reported at least one confirmed case. 

Metro Atlanta still accounts for the largest overall number of cases, with Fulton County reporting more than 90 infections and two deaths from the new virus. But two counties with a fraction of Atlanta's population are among those hit the hardest. 

In southwest Georgia, Albany and surrounding Dougherty County have ordered residents to stay home unless they're going to work, buying food, seeking medical care or exercising. The county has reported six deaths and more than 45 cases. Infections in Bartow County northwest of Atlanta have surpassed 55, with one death.

Figures provided by state health officials show those who have died were between the ages of 42 and 85. More than three-fourths had underlying medical conditions.

Amid the growing outbreak, Georgia Republicans held county conventions across the state Saturday for meetings that are part of the process for electing delegates to the Republican National Convention, where President Donald Trump is expected to be nominated later this year. GOP leaders in Georgia had discouraged attendance beyond the minimum number of people required.

"The meetings were safely and quickly held, conducting the minimum necessary legal business," Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer said in a text message Saturday. "They were lightly attended." 

Meanwhile, a second Georgia lawmaker announced that she has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.  Republican state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick of Marietta said she was tested after coming down with a fever a week ago and got the result Friday. Kirkpatrick said she and her husband have quarantined themselves at home and she's "comfortable that I have not put anyone at risk."

"Fortunately, it is a great time to be on my back porch," Kirkpatrick, a physician, wrote on her Facebook page. "Although I am in the at-risk age group, I am blessed to be very healthy and thankful that I am recovering without complications."

One of her legislative colleagues, GOP Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta, previously announced he had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Georgia's 235 other representatives and senators, plus legislative employees, have been urged 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. 

Of Georgians who have died, the average age was just over 66, with the oldest being 85 and the youngest 42, according the state Department of Public Health. At least 10 had underlying health conditions.

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 complications such as pneumonia. The vast majority recover.

While schools and colleges statewide have been closed, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has refrained from ordering restaurants and other businesses to shut down, leaving those decisions to local governments. Like Dougherty County, Athens-Clarke County has imposed some of the toughest restrictions by ordering residents to stay home except for work, doctor visits or other necessities.

As the spring break season arrives, local governments have closed public beaches at Tybee Island and St. Simons Island on the Georgia coast. Officials have also shut down Jekyll Island, a state park.

Georgia has opened at least 13 drive-thru locations for virus testing and plans more. Kemp says priority for tests is 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.

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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