‘This is real’: Virus claims dozens of Georgians in a single week

One was a music teacher who inspired generations of public school students.

One was a prison inmate nearing the end of a 20-year sentence for aggravated child molestation.

The oldest was 95; the youngest, 31.

They lived amid the urban density of metro Atlanta and in the least populous environs of rural Georgia. They were black and white, men and women.

coach at a private school. The father of a college football player. A South Georgia pastor.

These are among the dozens of Georgians who died this week from the novel coronavirus that intensified its assault across the state, straining resources needed to handle the surge of people falling ill.

On Friday, Georgia’s confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, topped 2,000, twice as many as three days earlier.

Officials said 65 Georgians have died since the outbreak began — all within the past two weeks, and 42 just since Sunday.

Almost 600 of those with confirmed cases are hospitalized. But Georgia hospitals are treating many more patients with COVID-19 symptoms who are waiting for laboratory tests to confirm their diagnoses.

“This is a pandemic like nothing I’ve experienced in my career,” Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia’s public health commissioner, said Friday in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s several times more infectious than the flu — and 10 times more deadly.”

More than 100 of Georgia’s 159 counties have confirmed cases of the virus, and Toomey said that without strict social distancing, “we’ll see it get much worse.”

Toomey’s boss, Gov. Brian Kemp, said Friday he has deployed two Georgia National Guard medical teams to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany in hard-hit southwest Georgia. The teams consist of one physician, four nurses, 13 medics, two physician assistants, a medical supply specialist and 22 support staff. Five other support staff went to PruittHealth-Palmyra, a nursing home in Albany.

The National Guard sent similar teams, each composed of 10 to 12 members, to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and to hospitals in Augusta, Athens, Rome, Gainesville and Tifton. The guard expects to deploy six more teams next week, said Cody Hall, a spokesman for the governor.

Kemp continues to resist calls that he order Georgians to stay home and nonessential businesses to close. He has shut down bars and nightclubs, but not restaurants, while limiting public gatherings without adequate social distancing to fewer than 10 people. Both Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat who issued a shelter-at-home order for city residents, and House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, said they disagree with Kemp’s measured approach.

Members of Kemp’s administration briefed lawmakers on the state’s coronavirus response during a conference call Friday, detailing efforts to deal with shortages of medical supplies and protective gear for health care workers.

Georgia hospitals have a total of 2,400 ventilators on hand, Homer Bryson, the state’s emergency management director, told lawmakers, according to a summary of the call obtained by the Journal-Constitution. Ventilators are critical to saving the lives of patients in respiratory failure from COVID-19.

Bryson told lawmakers the state has ordered another 1,200 ventilators. So far, however, it has received only 80.

Underscoring the severity of the outbreak and the increasing death toll, the medical examiner’s office at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said this week it is seeking additional space to store bodies. Until laboratory tests determine whether coronavirus was present in each body, “the decedent will be placed in the cooler,” Dr. Jonathan Eisenstat, the chief medical examiner, wrote in a memo to coroners and law enforcement officials. He urged them to ask funeral homes and hospitals to keep bodies while tests are run.

AJC COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA

Georgia confirmed its first coronavirus death on March 12, then one more each of the next five days. Since then, the numbers have soared, with deaths reported in 27 counties. As of Friday, as many people had died in Dougherty County as in Fulton County, despite a difference in population of more than 900,000.

Five people died in Lee County, with a population of about 30,000, and two in Terrell County, with just 8,700 residents.

More death reports are likely as additional tests are completed.

“We see it all through the state, in every community, regardless of race or creed,” Toomey said on a conference call that she and Kemp held with about 500 pastors this week.

In the interview Friday, Toomey said epidemiologists are investigating how the coronavirus transmitted so rapidly through certain communities. Much of the southwest Georgia outbreak has been traced to two heavily attended funerals in Albany.

“Once it gets out into the community and people in the community are convening in large gatherings, it can spread very rapidly,” Toomey said, emphasizing the importance of social distancing.

She suspects that the virus moved into several nursing homes in the Albany area through a worker who attended one of the funerals.

“It goes from there — another nursing home, another health care worker,” she said. “It’s a domino effect, going from person to person.”

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Several Georgia nursing homes are struggling to operate because so many workers are sick, she said. She also has heard anecdotal reports of doctors who had to stop treating patients because they had contracted the virus.

Two Georgia health care workers died recently from the coronavirus, one in Coweta County and the other in Seminole County. It is not clear whether either had been in contact with coronavirus patients at the hospitals where they worked.

As she oversees the state’s response to the outbreak, two things worry Toomey: that not enough people are staying at home to curb the spread, and that some people still call the virus a “hoax.”

“There are people still in Georgia who don’t even believe this is real,” Toomey said. “That’s of great concern to me. We may not have a positive test in a particular county now, but that doesn’t mean there are not symptomatic people there.”

“This is real,” she said. “This will go statewide. It’s likely in your community already.”

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Staff writers Johnny Edwards, Brad Schrade, Tyler Estep and Joshua Sharpe contributed to this article.

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