Georgia governor slammed for not knowing asymptomatic people could transmit virus

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced a shelter-in-place order on Wednesday and ordered public schools closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He said he didn't know until this week that the asymptomatic "could have been infecting people before they ever felt bad."

U.S. senator says Brian Kemp's admission begs for ramping up testing, contact tracing

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday, where he said he was issuing a statewide shelter-in-place order to prevent spread of the coronavirus. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/The Associated Press)

Georgia's shelter-in-place order will be published Thursday and go into effect the following day, but the state's governor is taking heat for his justification for resorting to the measure.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced the shelter-in-place order on Wednesday and ordered public schools shut down for the rest of the semester.

Kemp had previously resisted calls for a statewide order for all Georgians to stay at home, saying those decisions are best left to local governments. The result has been a patchwork of ordinances that can vary widely even among neighbouring communities.

Kemp, a Republican, said the state had to be more aggressive, with models showing Georgia needed more time to prepare to handle patients with the virus.

He also said guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — which has its headquarters in Georgia — that people could spread the virus earlier than previously thought, even when they had no symptoms, was a "game-changer."

"Those individuals could have been infecting people before they ever felt bad. Well, we didn't know that until the last 24 hours," he said, seeming to also refer to Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey.

An op-ed published late Wednesday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said: "That reasoning is specious. Health officials had expressed concern that the virus could be transmitted this way."

While preliminary studies on so-called pre-symptomatic people have only begun to be published in recent days, the possibility has been widely reported on, including in the United States, for several weeks.

Democratic Virginia congressman Don Beyer, responding to the Kemp comments, tweeted one such CNN report from mid-February that included comments on asymptomatic transmission from CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield.

In an interview Tuesday with a radio station in Atlanta, Redfield said that 25 per cent of infected people may be asymptomatic, thought it was not clear what that estimate was based on, or if it included people who were pre-symptomatic or post-symptomatic.

Chris Murphy, Democratic senator from Connecticut, said in a Twitter post on Thursday that Kemp's reversal highlighted the failings of the U.S. response to the pandemic.

"This is why we need a national test, trace, and quarantine program," said Murphy. "Because governors and mayors aren't public health experts, and Kemp isn't alone in totally misunderstanding the science and making fatal mistakes as a consequence."

Georgia county one of the 1st rural hot spots

While the COVID-19 virus began its spread in the U.S. largely in urban centres, a rural southwestern section of Kemp's state was one of the exceptions.

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany has been inundated with dozens of patients with coronavirus symptoms.

Thirty-one people with the virus have died at Phoebe Putney as of Wednesday. Surrounding Dougherty County has 490 of the state's coronavirus cases, second only to Fulton County, where Atlanta is located, according to the state Department of Public Health. Dougherty County's population is around 95,000 people, while Fulton's is just over one million.

State officials have previously said the spread in Dougherty may be linked to an out-of-state visitor to a funeral held in the county.

For the first time, Phoebe Putney on Tuesday released a patient who tested positive for the virus and had been on a ventilator in an intensive care unit. Hospital staff lined the hallway as the patient headed home after several weeks in the ICU, said Dr. Steven Kitchen, chief medical officer at the hospital. 

"They were cheering. They were crying," Kitchen said at a news conference Wednesday. "This is an event that we are hopeful is going to be repeated not only at Phoebe Putney, but across every hospital that we see."

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Kemp's announcement came as the number of cases in the state climbed Wednesday to over 4,700, with the death toll at 154.

Kemp's shelter-in-place order extends until April 13. Two other Southern governors who had resisted statewide stay-home orders — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves — issued similar orders on the same day.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

With files from The Associated Press

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