ATLANTA (AP) — The number of deaths from the new coronavirus in Georgia now tops 50 and the number of confirmed cases in Hall County is now 22.
The latest report was issued just one hour before Gov. Brian Kemp to part in a town hall meeting that was broadcast and telecast statewide.
Asked why he had not ordered people to stay home statewide as the virus spreads rapidly, Kemp said he had to balance the needs of all across the state, including 50 counties that had no reported cases. He said he preferred to leave those decisions to local officials.
“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 social distancing practices.
As of Thursday night, more than 500 people were hospitalized in the state 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. There have now been 56 deaths in the state. Click here to see the state's latest report.
Earlier in the day, Kemp ordered that K-12 public schools across the state remain closed through April 24 and it also closes public colleges and universities for the rest of the semester. Many school districts had already decided to extended closures on their own, after an earlier order signed by Kemp that banned gatherings of 10 or more people.
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 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. Many of Georgia’s 180 local school systems were already exempt from most of the rules under earlier flexibility agreements, but the move extends the flexibility to all. The state also changed the fee structure for enrolling students in online classes offered by the Georgia Virtual School.
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.
AP writer Kate Brumback and AccessWDUN's Ken Stanford contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.