Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Gov. Brian Kemp is urging Georgians to keep distanced and consider outdoor or virtual gatherings this Thanksgiving with COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the rise in recent weeks.

Positive cases have increased substantially in recent weeks from a daily average of just under 1,200 cases on Oct. 1 to an average of more than 2,600 daily cases as of Monday, according to state Department of Public Health data.

Kemp and other state officials are hoping to stave off an even steeper spike during the holidays, when the temptation for more Georgians to abandon distancing precautions may be high after eight months of isolation away from loved ones.

The governor asked people to consider holding virtual or outdoor gatherings and to tightly limit group sizes in Georgia homes for the Thanksgiving feast.

“I know that people are frustrated and ready to return to normal,” Kemp said at a news conference Tuesday. “But we cannot grow weary. We have to keep our foot on the gas in this fight.”

As of Monday, more than 406,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia. The virus had killed 8,644 Georgians.

Public-health officials across the U.S. are warning of a possible bleak winter season for COVID-19 transmissions with emergency-use authorization for several vaccines just around the corner – but not ready yet.

Georgia’s top public-health official, Dr. Katheen Toomey, said Tuesday that while Georgia has not seen the virus spread as rapidly recently as in other states, positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths are still on the rise.

She cautioned people hopeful of spending time with family and friends to not rely on any recent negative COVID-19 tests they may have taken, since that’s no guarantee against catching the virus after receiving results.

“It’s particularly important that we don’t use a [COVID-19] test as a justification to go and not follow the guidelines,” Toomey said.

As they have in the past, Kemp and Toomey stressed the importance of wearing masks, maintaining distance and washing hands to lower chances for catching the virus. The governor also said officials have up to two months-worth of protective gear to send local hospitals and elderly care facilities.

“We are prepared to handle whatever comes our way,” Kemp said. “We want this to be a bump, not a spike.”

Despite the case climb and holiday risks, Kemp has declined so far to change any mandatory COVID-19 rules beyond sanitation guidelines in restaurants and bars, a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people and a shelter-in-place order for Georgia’s elderly and chronically ill populations.

That steadiness comes despite a recent White House COVID-19 task force warning Georgia to boost safety rules for the holidays. Kemp said Tuesday he did not “see any reasons” for more safety measures since the state is seeing a “bump” and not a “spike” in viral transmissions and illnesses.

Kemp has long sought to weigh health risks with potential economic damages when imposing mandatory COVID-19 rules since March, most contentiously by declining to order a statewide mask mandate as other states as well as cities within Georgia chose to do so.

State officials also gave a first glimpse into preparations for rolling out COVID-19 vaccine doses once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives the green light likely next month for distributing a handful of vaccines that have passed clinical trials with flying colors.

Insurance Commissioner John King, who is heading up Georgia’s vaccine plans, said officials are currently “fine-tuning” how best to locate the state’s most vulnerable elderly and chronically ill community members to prioritize them for distribution, due to a limited number of doses initially set to arrive.

With many public-health experts anticipating vaccines will not be available widespread to the general public until at least summer 2021, King heeded Georgians not to lean on any vaccine’s near-readiness as an excuse to ignore distancing, hand-washing and wearing masks.

“When you’re waiting for the cavalry to arrive, you double down,” King said. “We know that the vaccine is coming [and] you can’t let your guard down.”