Kemp defends not ordering all Georgians to stay home

ATLANTA — (AP) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday night defended not issuing a statewide stay-at-home order, even though cases of the new coronavirus continued to rise rapidly in the state, where at least 56 people have died because of the virus.

The Republican governor extended an order to keep public schools closed earlier Thursday. Kemp has also ordered bars and nightclubs shut, banned gatherings of more than 10 people and ordered those with serious medical conditions to shelter in place.

But he has resisted calls to take more restrictive action like ordering all people to stay at home or shutting non-essential businesses, and instead left those decisions to local governments. That’s led to a patchwork of various restrictions and orders that have sprung up from cities and counties across the state.

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Asked during a televised town hall event Thursday night why he has not ordered people to stay home, Kemp said he had to balance the needs of all across the state, including counties that had no reported cases, and consider the implications on jobs.

“I still have arrows in the quiver if you will, if things get worse,” Kemp said as he urged Georgians to follow local orders and adhere to social distancing practices.

That argument was quickly panned by Democrats.

"When was the last time you heard a winning coach say, we still have arrows in our quiver?" tweeted House Minority Leader Bob Trammell. "When it's go time, you leave it all on the field. Everything. You don't get do-overs."

As of Thursday night, more than 500 people were hospitalized because of the virus, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. The state reported more than 1,640 confirmed cases, though testing has been limited and results can sometimes take days to receive.

Kemp’s latest order keeps K-12 public schools across the state closed through April 24, though many districts had already extended closures on their own, and closes public colleges and universities for the rest of the semester.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

With infections spreading rapidly, some hospitals across the country are already struggling to keep up.

Dougherty County in southwest Georgia has been particularly hard hit. With more than 160 confirmed cases, the county has an infection rate more than 10 times as high as the rest of the state. A large influx of coronavirus patients has stretched resources thin at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany as officials scramble to find more bed space.

“All three of our intensive care units at this point are all filled with COVID-19 patients,” Phoebe Putney Chief Medical Officer Dr. Steven Kitchen said during a news briefing Thursday. “We have no available ICU beds,” Kitchens said, adding that emergency room patients are being diverted to other hospitals in the region.

Of the state's confirmed deaths, at least 17 have been in southwest Georgia, and other regional counties also have high infection rates.

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said that two first responders are in “serious condition” because of the virus.

With schools closed, the Georgia state Board of Education on Thursday waived a series of state rules and laws in moves that will let school districts graduate seniors and promote other students even if coursework is incomplete.

Georgia's weekly unemployment filings more than doubled to nearly 12,000 for the week that ended March 21, but did not increase nearly as much as those nationwide or in neighboring states, according to federal data. Georgia Department of Labor spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright said that the state expects a sharp increase in processed claims this week after streamlining its processing systems.

Kemp on Thursday signed an executive order allowing the Georgia Department of Labor to pay 26 weeks of benefits while Georgia's state of emergency continues. That reverses a cut to as low as 14 weeks that lawmakers made in 2012.

Another emergency rule issued by Labor Commissioner Mark Butler allows someone to make up to $300 a week in wages and still receive a full unemployment payment, worth up to $330 a week.

The state earlier waived requirements that people look for work to receive benefits and said it would provide benefits for some people who had to stay home because of the virus threat.

The virus also continued to spread inside Georgia's jails and prisons. Fulton County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said Thursday that four more inmates had tested positive. The four men, ranging in age from 33 to 65, are being treated in quarantine together at the jail. The sheriff’s office announced Monday that an inmate in his 30s had tested positive and was hospitalized.

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AP writer Kate Brumback contributed to this report.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.