Kemp re-opens Georgia ‘incrementally and safely’

Georgia Governor Brian P. Kemp announced his plan to re-open the State of Georgia in a multi-step process, starting April 24.  “In the same way that we carefully closed businesses and urged operations to end to mitigate the virus’ spread, today, we are announcing plans to incrementally—and safely—reopen sectors of our economy,” Kemp said.

Given the favorable data, enhanced testing and approval of healthcare professionals, Kemp said he will allow gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians, their respective schools, and massage therapists to reopen their doors April 24, 2020. “Unlike other businesses, these entities have been unable to manage inventory, deal with payroll, and take care of administrative items while we shelter in place. This measure allows them to undertake baseline operations that most other businesses in the state have maintained since I issued the shelter-in-place order.”

Subject to specific social distancing and sanitation mandates, theaters, private social clubs, and restaurant dine-in services will be allowed to reopen April 27. Bars, nightclubs, operators of amusement park rides, and live performance venues will remain closed. “In the days ahead, we will be evaluating the data and conferring with public health officials to determine the best course of action for those establishments. By taking this measured action, we will get Georgians back to work safely without undermining the progress that we have all made in the battle against COVID-19,” Kemp said. The measure will apply statewide and will be the operational standard in all jurisdictions, meaning that local action cannot be taken that is more or less restrictive, Kemp added. 

“Over the next few days, we will continue to closely monitor existing and potential hotspots in our state. I stay in regular contact with local leaders across Georgia, especially those in Dougherty County, to ensure that we are providing adequate support. Right now, in Albany and Dougherty County, we are starting to see improvements. I talk to Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas on a regular basis to see if further action is warranted. Rest assured, if any community needs the state to intervene, we will do so with their input and partnership,” Kemp said.

Joined by Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan, Speaker David Ralston, Georgia National Guard Adjutant General Tom Carden, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey and GEMA/HS Director Homer Bryson, Kemp gave details as to how the re-opening was to work, stressing its importance.

"The entities that I am reopening are not reopening for 'business as usual.' Each of these entities will be subject to specific restrictions, including adherence to Minimum Basic Operations, social distancing, and regular sanitation. Minimum Basic Operations includes, but is not limited to, screening workers for fever and respiratory illness, enhancing workplace sanitation, wearing masks and gloves if appropriate, separating workspaces by at least six feet, teleworking where at all possible, and implementing staggered shifts.”

For places of worship, holding in-person services is allowed, but under Phase One guidelines, it must be done in accordance with strict social distancing protocols,” Kemp said, urging faith leaders to continue to help keep their congregations safe by heeding the advice of public health officials.  

Kemp said the re-opening will be a three-pronged approach, modeled from the White House. 'Opening Up America Again' includes three phases to safely reopen and get people back to work, he said. To initiate Phase One, a state must meet a series of basic criteria, which can be tailored to reflect specific circumstances for a regional or statewide approach. 

“For weeks now, our state has taken targeted action to prevent, detect, and address the spread of coronavirus by leveraging data and advice from health officials in the public and private sectors. Thanks to this methodical approach and the millions of Georgians who have worked diligently to slow the spread of coronavirus, we are on track to meet the gating criteria for Phase One,” Kemp said.

According to the Department of Public Health, reports of emergency room visits for flu-like illnesses are declining, documented COVID-19 cases have flattened and there has been a decline in emergency room visits. Hospital bed capacity has been expanded, allowing patients to be treated in hospital settings. Elective surgeries have also been voluntarily paused to alleviate equipment and personnel shortages. 

“Our proactive actions have reduced stress and strain on area hospitals as well as the communities and families that they serve,” Kemp said. “This selfless act by healthcare leaders enhanced our ability to keep Georgians safe. However, many now find themselves in a difficult financial situation, some losing millions of dollars a day as they sacrifice for the greater good. This is not sustainable long-term for these facilities.”

Given the recent changes in modeling as it relates to surge capacity and national supply as the needs of other states diminish and following weeks of discussions with hospital leaders and medical providers, Kemp said he believes Georgia is positioned to secure the necessary personal protective equipment for healthcare facilities to resume elective surgeries deemed essential.

"Hospitals should continue discussions in their regions to ensure that patient safety—and the safety of their workforce—is prioritized,” Kemp said. “I applaud all of the hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, doctors’ offices, dentists’ offices, physical therapists, and healthcare professionals that answered the call of duty and voluntarily closed their doors. It is impossible for me to adequately express my gratitude. And to all of the Georgians who waited on getting an important procedure to allow us to get on the other side of the curve, thank you. Your sacrifice saved lives.”

As of April 20, there were 18,947 COVID-19 cases in Georgia with 733 deaths, Kemp said. The state lab has processed 5,362 tests, and commercial vendors have processed 78,966 tests. 

“We understand that these are more than just numbers. These are Georgians. These are families and communities impacted. Our prayers remain with the victims and their loved ones,” Kemp said. “We lift up those who are battling this terrible virus. We remain focused on the safety and well-being of every person who calls Georgia home.”

                                     Augusta University App

Augusta University Health launched a telemedicine app to screen, test and treat Georgia patients through an algorithm designed by experts at the Medical College of Georgia. Kemp said the app has “enhanced public health while reducing exposure for our doctors, nurses, and medical staff.” The 56-year old governor is encouraging symptomatic Georgians to download the app and begin the screening process. Georgians can access the app by visiting AugustaHealth.org, downloading AU Health ExpressCare on a smartphone or calling (706) 721-1852.

Through the free app, physicians and advanced practice providers from Augusta University Health and the Medical College of Georgia are available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Individuals who begin to show symptoms consistent with COVID-19 will be able to reach a clinician to get screened.  If the person meets criteria for testing, staff will notify them to schedule a test at one of the state’s designated convenient testing locations. Healthcare information will be securely transmitted to the designated testing site. "This streamlined process reduces stress on both the patient and testing site workers,” Kemp said. 

Test specimens will be sent to several key academic institutions in the state for processing, including Augusta University, Emory University, Georgia State University and the Georgia Public Health Lab. Test results will be shared with the person in roughly 72 hours via a secure patient portal. A medical provider will contact the person directly if they are positive. 

Augusta University will produce thousands of testing swabs in the Dental College of Georgia innovation lab using the same 3-D printers that have produced face shields for healthcare workers, Kemp said. “This capability greatly reduces our dependence on vendors and governmental entities as we boost testing and get Georgians back into the workplace.”  

                                                Testing

Testing has increased in availability, Kemp said, through partnerships with the University System of Georgia and private sector now offering drive-thru services and public health departments across Georgia to offer testing for all symptomatic individuals. Additional testing will be added through “an even broader partnership with the state’s dedicated health sciences university and its health system to double down on our testing capacity and meet the requirements necessary to move forward with the president’s plan.” The Georgia National Guard will mobilize ten new strike teams to deploy to hotspots and long-term care facilities to administer 1,500 tests per day. Testing expansions through Augusta University and the Guard will complement existing initiatives, including the Department of Public Health’s capacity, Georgia Tech’s CVS testing site, and private labs. 

“As I’ve said before, testing defines the battlefield and informs our long-term strategy,” Kemp said. “These efforts significantly increase our capacity as we take measured steps forward. Throughout this entire process from creating the Coronavirus Task Force to today, we have relied on data, science, and the advice of healthcare professionals to guide our approach and decision-making. We have been surgical, targeted, and methodical, always putting the health and well-being of our citizens first, and doing our best to protect lives—and livelihoods—in every part of Georgia.”

                                               Moving forward

Kemp said that his announcement is “a small step forward and should be treated as such.” The shelter in place order is still active and is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. on April 30 for most Georgians. Kemp urged everyone to continue to follow CDC and DPH guidance by sheltering in place as often as possible, limiting travel and companions to prevent potential exposure. Wearing face masks while in public to slow the spread of coronavirus is also urged. 

Kemp added that medically fragile and elderly Georgians should make plans to shelter in place at least through May 13—the date Georgia’s Public Health Emergency expires—given the heightened risk of adverse consequences from exposure to coronavirus.

“This is the recommended—and safest—path forward. We will release more details as we near the end of the month so medically fragile and elderly Georgians will have adequate time to prepare. I continue to call on my fellow Georgians to protect our elderly, limit your direct contact, and help them navigate the weeks ahead,” Kemp said. 

Kemp is encouraged by the data, proud of what has been accomplished, and confident of his plan moving forward, he said that the journey ahead is long. 

“We must remain laser-focused on defeating this virus and keeping Georgians safe. We must find ways to revitalize communities devastated by COVID-19. We must identify opportunities for economic growth and prosperity,” Kemp said.

"We will have tough conversations about the budget, state spending, and our priorities and values as a state. Those conversations are underway, and here’s what I know: if we remain united just as we have in this fight against COVID-19, we can overcome the challenges and obstacles ahead. But if we allow politics, partisanship, elections, and egos to divide us during this important inflection point, our entire state will suffer. So, as we begin this process—this measured, deliberate step forward—let’s reaffirm our commitment to each other, to the greater good, and to Georgia’s future. I am confident that together, we will emerge victorious from this war. With your help and God’s grace, we will build a safer, stronger, and more prosperous state for our families and generations to come,” Kemp concluded. 

See the joint statement from Pickens County Government and the City of Jasper