Georgia Coronavirus Updates: Lags In Testing As ICU Capacity Strained

Some people are waiting over a week to get test results for COVID-19, hospitals around the state are already approaching maximum capacity of intensive care beds and the number of Georgians impacted by the virus grows daily.

As of 7 p.m. Thursday, March 26, there are 1,643 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in over 100 of Georgia’s 159 counties with 56 reported deaths. Nearly 9,000 tests have been performed by state and commercial labs. The state also says 509 people are hospitalized, a newly-reported measure of the virus’ severity.

Here is the latest coronavirus news from Georgia for Thursday, March 26, 2020.

ICU bed capacity
An NPR analysis of data from the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice looked at how the nation’s 100,000 ICU beds are distributed across the more than 300 markets that make up the country’s hospital system.

MORE: ICU Bed Capacity Varies Widely Nationwide. See How Your Area Stacks Up

The national median is about 30 beds per 100,000 people. Most Georgia regions rank in the bottom third of the country.

In both Albany and Atlanta, there are about 24 ICU beds per 100,000 people. Albany has around 50 ICU beds, Atlanta has about 1,500.

But early on in the coronavirus outbreak, both systems are full.

On Wednesday, there were 36 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the Phoebe Putney Health System in southwest Georgia. Scott Steiner, the system’s CEO, said the day started off with all beds across their three main ICUs filled with critically ill COVID-19 patients.

“We previously opened a fourth ICU to provide critical care for non-COVID patients,” he said. “We continue to partner with the state on plans to open critical care space on our Phoebe North campus. As this public health crisis in southwest Georgia gets more severe, we have been reaching out to other hospitals in our part of the state.  I am pleased that every one of our regional partners we spoke to in the last 24 hours agreed to assist by accepting patient transfers from us, when appropriate.”

One place they’re not likely to be transferred is Atlanta. Every ICU bed in the city’s four major hospitals is taken, and that includes non-coronavirus patients, too.

“The stress is not just capacity,” Grady Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Jansen told CBS News. “It’s not just stress of supplies, but on the individuals taking care of the patients. Because so much is not known.”

Measuring the capacity of ICU beds is important, because those are the units that are most likely to treat people with respiratory problems that require ventilators.

Lag in testing

While the Georgia Department of Public Health reports updated numbers of tests, positives, hospitalizations and deaths twice a day, the real impact of coronavirus is much larger.

A lot of that has to do with a backlog in testing.

The South Central Health District, covering a 10-county area that has at least 9 cases of COVID-19, posted a letter on social media advising people who were tested March 16-19 they are still waiting on results.

“…the testing facility receiving our specimens on the above-mentioned dates is 8-9 days behind in processing COVID-19 specimens,” it read. “This is due to the large volume of specimens they received.”

Only 6,200 or so tests have been performed in Georgia, a state with more than 10 million residents. For comparison, both Colorado (about 5 million residents) and New Mexico (about 2 million residents) have tested about 8,000 people each.

Kemp’s town hall
Gov. Brian Kemp will be holding an unprecedented statewide town hall with members of his coronavirus task force at 8 p.m. Thursday.

This broadcast will also feature interviews with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency Director Homer Bryson, and Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John King.

You can watch it on your local GPB TV station and listen on your GPB radio station.

Albany getting some relief  

Volunteers in the community around Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany have been working around the clock to make protective masks for health care workers that are burning through supplies treating an increasing number of COVID-19 cases.

Last week, the hospital went through five months of supplies in several days.

The hospital system says there are at least 173 patients that have tested positive, and Dougherty County itself has 123 cases. With a population around 90,000 people, the county now has an infection rate on par with New York state.

Dougherty County has issued a shelter-in-place order.

The order seeks to prevent the virus from travelling in the community by closing businesses deemed non-essential and limiting public gatherings until at least early April.

“I don’t think people are taking this threat as seriously as we should,” Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said during a press conference Sunday. “The coroner has got on this podium and explained people are dying. The medical professionals have told us this is a highly contagious virus. We cannot wait till we are infected to stop the spread.”

The order grants several exceptions, including grocery stores, healthcare centers, banks, hardware stores and take-out restaurants.

MORE: Georgia-Based Waffle House Closes More Than 300 Locations

Georgia will mail absentee ballot applications to all active registered voters
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Tuesday his office will mail all 6.9 million active voters in the state an absentee ballot application for the May 19 primary elections. Voters will need to fill it out and return it to county elections officials, then they will receive their absentee ballot. Georgia postponed its March 24 presidential primary until May amid coronavirus concerns.

It will cost north of $10 million, and makes it easier for those anxious about showing up to a busy polling place to cast their ballot safely from home.

“With social distancing as the most important tool for limiting the spread of coronavirus, providing alternatives to voting in person is crucial,” Raffensperger said. “All Georgia voters can request and vote an absentee ballot for any reason.” 

Georgia nears ‘point of no return’ with coronavirus

“For the next two weeks, stay at home.” That’s the message Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean for Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System, has for all of Georgia.

Speaking with GPB’s Virginia Prescott, he said that having everyone stay at home for two weeks would do three things: slow the spread of coronavirus, buy more time to ramp up testing to identify where problem areas are and make sure there’s enough capacity to treat people.

“We make sure we have the appropriate [personal protective equipment], we have the appropriate ICU bed supply, etc. so we don’t get overwhelmed,” he said. “By doing those things, we’re actually doing what’s called ‘flattening the curve.’ We’re preventing an onslaught of patients to come to our hospitals that would actually make our healthcare system collapse. So those are the things that need to happen.”

Kemp outlines ‘medically fragile’ that need to stay home

Monday evening, Kemp announced the first statewide restrictions aimed at minimizing the spread of COVID-19. Bars and nightclubs are closed.

Those who are “medically fragile,” plus anyone who has been around someone with COVID-19, are ordered to “shelter within their homes or place of residence” until April 6. That includes people in a nursing home or long-term care facility, those who have chronic lung disease and people currently undergoing cancer treatment – all groups that are likely to have been staying home already.

The other part of the order limits most public gatherings of 10 or more – unless said gathering can ensure every person is at least 6 feet away from every other person at all times.

Businesses and nonprofits (including churches) who violate the edict can be shut down by DPH.

Kemp’s decision was met with criticism from many who are calling for tougher restrictions to slow the virus, ranging from public health experts to Democratic lawmakers.

Other states have gone further

According to the National Governors Association, at least nine states are under a stay at home order, while 37 total states and territories have a mandatory cap on the size of public gatherings. At least 35 states have some sort of statewide order closing or limiting the operation of some businesses.

Sunday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order that prohibits gatherings of 10 or more, requires restaurants in that state to only have takeout options and requires all businesses to “utilize alternative business models.”

Also Sunday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a stay at home order lasting until April 12.

“The bottom line is we’re in a race against time when it comes to this coronavirus and its spread across Louisiana,” Edwards said. “The mitigation measures that we have in place will not be effective if our people and our businesses do not actively participate.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order last week shutting down bars and nightclubs statewide for 30 days and directing public beaches to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines limiting the size of public gatherings. Monday, Florida closed all state parks because too many people were still visiting them.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster last week closed bars and dine-in restaurants, limited events of 50 or more from happening in government facilities.

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey issued an updated public health order that prohibits all non-work related gatherings of 25 people or more, or public gatherings of any size that cannot maintain a 6-foot distance between people. Restaurants and bars are not allowed to have on-site consumption and beaches are also closed through April 5.

Atlanta, Savannah under stay-at-home orders for two weeks

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is effectively locking down Georgia’s largest city with a 14-day stay-at-home order that directs people to stay inside unless they work for essential businesses or are getting essential services.

Some of those essential businesses include health care operations, grocery stores and farmers markets, gas stations, banks, public transportation and restaurants that are delivery or takeout only.

Atlantans can leave their homes under a few circumstances, including health care needs (like going to the doctor or to the pharmacy), supply needs (like the grocery store), going to work at an essential business and engaging in outdoor activity.

The Atlanta BeltLine, city parks and other shared outdoor spaces remain open for use as long as people socially distance themselves at least 6 feet away from others.

Bottoms was set to issue the order earlier Monday, but Kemp asked her to hold off until after his press conference announcing statewide social distancing changes. In a press release, Bottoms said the city needed to exercise “every reasonable power” to slow the spread of the virus.

“I appreciate the leadership of Gov. Brian Kemp during this crisis and his concern for the wellbeing of the people across Georgia,” Bottoms said. “While Governor Kemp has to consider the needs of the state as a whole, as Mayor of Atlanta, I have been entrusted with making decisions that are specific to our city. Given our population density, high rate of asthma, and various underlying health conditions found within our city’s populations, I am issuing a Stay at Home Order for Atlantans.”

In Savannah, Mayor Van Johnson also signed an order to stay at home. The mayor delayed implementing this order out of deference to Kemp, who announced new emergency measures Monday evening, Johnson said in a news conference. Kemp’s action, Johnson said, did not go far enough.

“We would love to have some state mandates because that means everybody’s playing by the same rules,” Johnson said. 

Local farmers move online to stay in business amid pandemic
Farmers across Georgia are forced to find new ways of operating during a pandemic as local markets close and distribution is a little harder.

With crop production relying heavily on favorable weather conditions and market prices fluctuating greatly, many farmers live on thin profit margins even without the strain of a global pandemic according to Assistant Dean of Extension at UGA College of Agriculture Mark McCann.

Find out the status of your local Georgia farmers market

Death toll at 56

Fifty-six people have died from COVID-19 so far, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Two of those are health care workers. Last week, Donalsonville Hospital in southwest Georgia announced one of its employees tested positive at a different hospital and died. A mammogram technician at Piedmont Newnan Hospital died in her home last week as well.

Some Georgia businesses are hiring to keep up with increased demand

While many of Georgia’s businesses are suffering from mass closures amid the spread of the coronavirus, others are hiring more than ever before, due to the increase in demand at grocery stores, restaurants and pharmacies.

Home DepotCostco and Sam’s Club are just a few companies hiring workers and offering benefits amid coronavirus-related layoffs and economic distress. CVS is also looking to fill 50,000 full time and part time positions while offering bonuses and benefits to those who work during “this time of unprecedented need,” according to a press release.

What You Need To Know: Help With Unemployment Benefits

Georgia Public Broadcasting’s new series What You Need To Know: Coronavirus provides succinct, fact-based information to help you get through the coronavirus pandemic with your health and sanity intact. 

Taylor Gantt spoke with Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler about the effect the COVID-19 outbreak is having on Georgia’s employment market and how to quickly tap into unemployment benefits if needed.

Read More