Gov. Brian Kemp calls for vulnerable residents to take precautions as coronavirus spreads in Georgia. (Photo by Beau Evans)

With much of Georgia self-quarantining to curb the spread of coronavirus, Gov. Brian Kemp and other officials urged the state’s residents Thursday night to keep practicing social distancing and personal hygiene as medical supplies run low in hospitals and test results remain slow.

As of Thursday night, the respiratory virus had infected 1,643 people and killed 56 in Georgia. The growing number of patients has taxed the state’s hospitals, particularly in rural areas where protective gear and intensive-care beds are already in short supply.

Businesses in Georgia have shuttered, prompting thousands of people to file unemployment claims with the state Department of Insurance. Public schools that were set to reopen April 1 after a two-week closure will now stay closed through April 24, per Kemp’s orders.

Health experts have warned the virus could last for weeks if not months longer and potentially return later in the year for a second wave as the summer heat passes. Most at risk from dangerous health impacts from the virus are elderly persons and people with chronic illnesses.

At a televised town hall Thursday night, Kemp acknowledged the state needs to boost testing for COVID-19. But he heeded people across Georgia regardless of the number of positive cases to limit their physical interactions with other people – a practice called social distancing – and to protect those with fragile health conditions like the elderly and chronically ill.

“It is going to be us as Georgians to beat this virus back,” Kemp said. “There’s no cure right now, there’s no vaccine, and it is up to all of us to get educated and to do our part to be victorious in this battle.”

“I can promise you,” he added, “we are doing everything within our power in the state.”

The town hall, which dozens of television and radio stations carried across the state, included appearances from the governor, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, state Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Kathleen Toomey and state Emergency Management Director Homer Bryson.

Earlier this week, Kemp issued an executive order requiring many of the state’s most vulnerable populations to remain indoors and isolated through midday April 6. His shelter-in-place order applies to people living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities and people with chronic lung disease or who are currently undergoing cancer treatment.

The shelter-in-place order also applies to anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus, is showing symptoms of the virus, or who has been in close contact with someone who has the virus or is showing symptoms of it.

The governor has faced criticism from many state lawmakers and others who want him to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order. On Wednesday, 36 Democrats in the Georgia House sent Kemp a letter urging him to take more drastic measures to keep people separated while the COVID-19 wave rolls over the state.

So far, Kemp has opted to let local government officials decide whether to impose more restrictive stay-at-home measures for their areas. Many places like Atlanta and Savannah have already chosen to do so.

Kemp said Thursday he could take more drastic action if needed, but that federal guidelines and many health experts continue to recommend leaving social and business restrictions up to local officials.

“I still have arrows in the quiver, if you will, if things get worse,” Kemp said.

Bottoms, responding to a question on whether the state should follow Atlanta’s lead, said she supports Kemp’s decision but suggested she might step up restrictions statewide if given the chance.

“If it were my call, I would have a stay-at-home order for the entire country,” Bottoms said. “But obviously, that is not my call.”

As with states across the country, testing for the virus has been limited in Georgia. Nearly 9,000 tests had been completed statewide as of Thursday night, mostly by commercial labs. Health experts have called for more testing to help local public health agencies keep better track of where exactly the virus is spreading.

Kemp said Thursday he expects the state to have a substantial number of tests completed within the next week or so, but that the turnaround time for results of between four and five days on average is still too long.

“We need that test to get back in two days or a day,” Kemp said.

With medical supplies running low, Kemp has called on local businesses to step up production and donations of tightly perforated N-95 masks, ventilators, hospital gowns, gloves, goggles, hand sanitizers and other items.

Toomey, the state public health commissioner, said Thursday state officials are working to pump local hospitals with more medical equipment from the national stockpile and by tapping into existing ventilators used as teaching tools in technical colleges.

“We’re actually trying to amass the needed amounts before it comes to that crisis point,” Toomey said.

Toomey did not have a specific count for how many ventilators total Georgia hospitals may need to avoid the kind of severe shortage now facing New York, where officials have estimated they need 30,000 more ventilators than they have currently.

“We have a chance to mitigate this in a way that perhaps they didn’t,” Toomey said, referring to New York.

Outside the Atlanta metro area, the virus has hit parts of northwest Georgia around Cartersville and Rome and further south around Albany especially hard.

Roughly one-third of the 48 people who were reported to have died from coronavirus through noon Thursday in Georgia were treated at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany. Another roughly 1,300 people in the Albany area are still awaiting results.

Faced with an influx of patients, medical staff at Phoebe Putney have had to fabricate sturdier breathing masks and coordinate with other hospitals in the state to take patients as ICU beds fill up.

Kemp said the best way to help hospitals like Phoebe Putney cut down on the patient influx is to keep the virus from spreading through voluntary isolation and social distancing.

“It’s really up to the public to cut down on the number of people who have to go to the hospital,” Kemp said.