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    A rapidly growing rate of coronavirus infections has Albany under siege. Its main hospital is so overrun with sick and dying patients that nurses at one point had been told to keep working even if they tested positive themselves, and the administration turned to the underground market to try to find essential supplies. The CDC and the state Department of Public Health have sent experts to investigate the catastrophic spread of the disease. Most non-essential local businesses have been disrupted or shuttered altogether. A downtown micro-brewery has converted half of its brew tanks into a hand sanitizer production line. The local Procter & Gamble paper plant is working to pump out enough Charmin toilet paper and Bounty paper towels to help supply products that have disappeared from store shelves across the state. » COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia Yet public officials fear the gravity of the crisis hasn’t sunk in for many residents in this Dougherty County city or nearby southwest Georgia communities. Big family cookouts went on last weekend. Some churches gathered for services as usual. Young people took part in pickup athletic games. Others stood in line together at food trucks. Then Thursday, Mayor Bo Dorough struck a somber tone in the city’s daily Facebook Live briefing as he announced a new threshold had been crossed. Two first responders had fallen seriously ill from the virus, joining the ranks of sick health care professionals, public safety employees and drivers with the local transit system. “It’s been a difficult day so far,” Dorough said. “We knew this was going to happen. These are people who are ill because they are serving the public.” Health officials say the crisis in Albany should be considered a harbinger of things to come for other Georgia cities, small towns and rural areas. While the country focuses on the human toll from the pandemic in metropolitan areas such as New York, Seattle and New Orleans, this city of 75,000 tucked in Georgia’s black belt agricultural region stands as a stark reminder that no community, no matter how small or off the beaten path, is immune once the virus takes hold. Albany’s closest interstate is I-75, some 40 miles to the east. And the local regional airport gets just a few Delta Connection flights from Atlanta each day. But Dougherty County still finds itself, for now, with the state’s highest concentration per capita of patients known to be infected with COVID-19. Thursday and Friday, the state sent two National Guard medical support teams to help. “The problem is we just got it earlier than everybody else,” said Scott Steiner, chief executive officer of Phoebe Putney Health System. “I hope I’m wrong, but I think this is coming to the rest of Georgia.” » RELATED: As virus spreads, a growing fear of overwhelmed hospitals » MORE: No timetable for widespread virus testing amid ongoing test scarcity As the area’s lone hospital network, Phoebe Putney is at the center of the coronavirus storm. The sudden deluge of critically ill patients quickly overwhelmed Albany’s main hospital. Late Monday night, the medical staff at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital faced a fresh dilemma in the crisis that has tested the institution like no other in its 110-year history. Several patients were rapidly deteriorating in one of the hospital’s coronavirus wings, yet they couldn’t be transferred into intensive care because the unit was nearly full. Shortly before midnight the hospital’s chief medical officer, Steven Kitchen, was called in. Quick decisions had to be made on which intensive care patients had recovered enough to be moved out. “We marshaled all of our resources,” Dr. Kitchen said. “We were able to free up some beds, move a couple patients out of the ICU, and were able to meet the patient care needs at that point.” Then on Wednesday the hospital announced that all 38 of its intensive care beds for coronavirus patients were full. The following day, after five other hospitals agreed to take transfers, Phoebe had one bed open, and just four ICU beds available for other types of patients. So far, health authorities have counted 29 deaths from the virus in the area: 18 in Dougherty County and 11 in surrounding communities, including Lee, Terrell, Baker, Mitchell and Early counties. The Dougherty County coroner says he’s waiting for test results on 10 more people suspected to have died from COVID-19. As of Saturday, the Phoebe Putney health system had 357 patients across its four hospitals who’ve tested positive, but close to 1,600 test results were still pending. As the medical community works to save lives of those infected, government leaders have worked to try to build a firebreak against the virus. In one part of that effort, Dorough in conjunction with Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas issued one of the most restrictive shelter-in-place orders in Georgia, including strict limits on what are deemed non-essential businesses. Officials in Albany are also trying to get leaders in surrounding communities to step up restrictions. “The virus doesn’t know any boundaries in the sand,” Dorough said. “This is not an Albany problem. This is a southwest Georgia problem.” Early warnings Nearly 60 years ago, the world’s attention was drawn to Albany as the local black community struggled for equality under the law. On the southside of downtown, the Albany Civil Rights Institute tells that story. The adjacent Old Mt. Zion Baptist Church is the site where Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken and where crowds sang freedom songs. About 10 blocks south of the old church sits the Martin Luther King Memorial Chapel, one of the city’s largest predominantly African American funeral homes. The past few weeks have been difficult for the home and its owner, Nathaniel Payne, who has been a fixture in the community for decades. » RELATED: Albany becomes unlikely coronavirus hot spot in Georgia » MORE: Increase in deaths, confirmed cases show virus’ toll is worsening Health officials haven’t said how the pandemic reached Albany so quickly, and the mayor says that is a question for a later day. But the earliest cases trace back to two funerals handled by Payne’s funeral home, demonstrating the danger of large gatherings where the virus can quickly and silently gain a foothold. Steiner, the Phoebe Putney CEO, estimated that the first 20 patients to reach the hospital were somehow connected to those services — one on Feb. 29, the other a week later. Among the infected are two of Payne’s employees who had to be hospitalized. “It’s taken its toll, not knowing where it is, what it is,” Payne said. “We’re doing the best we can.” When mourners came together for the first of the funerals, the coronavirus still seemed like a crisis happening far away. At the time, Georgia hadn’t reported a positive case yet. The first U.S. death had just happened in Seattle. The day before, President Trump had called concerns over U.S. preparedness a Democratic hoax. The service was for 64-year-old Andrew J. Mitchell, an Albany native who worked in custodial services and who died from what his family believes was heart failure. Mitchell came from a large family, and on Feb. 28 as many as 100 people came by the funeral home for visitation. The next day, seven of his siblings attended the funeral, along with dozens of his nieces, nephews, cousins and their own families. Some guests traveled in from as far away as Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. They greeted each other with tight handshakes, long embraces and kisses. “The minister, he was shaking pretty much everybody’s hand, just giving the family comfort and condolences,” Mitchell’s niece Chiquita Coleman said. “The funeral home officiants, they were kind of doing the same thing. That’s kind of their job, to give comfort. So there was a lot of touching and hugging and hand-shaking.” Afterward, chapel workers at the exit handed out memory cards. Later, there was a repast at Mitchell’s house and a gathering at the home of a sister. In the days and weeks following, at least two dozen Mitchell family members fell sick with flu-like symptoms. One of Mitchell’s nieces, Tonya Thomas, 51, died from COVID-19 on Friday after more than two weeks in critical condition at Piedmont Fayette Hospital. Two of his cousins are in intensive care at Phoebe Putney. Three of his sisters were hospitalized but have been discharged. » RELATED: Hospitals grapple with delaying procedures amid coronavirus surge » MORE: As hospitals fight to keep up, they tell mild cases not to seek tests Mitchell’s younger brother, Horace, returned to Baton Rouge and came down with a low-grade fever, nausea, cough and a loss of appetite. He went to a drive-through testing center and several days later learned he had the coronavirus. After going five days without a fever, he returned to work as a neurosurgeon on Tuesday. “It’s brutal,” Horace Mitchell said. “You’re going home to lay to rest a family member, and then you have all this stuff, all this aftermath that happens after that.” A 67-year-old man who traveled from the Atlanta area for the service later died at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta. His death, on March 11, was Georgia’s first from coronavirus. Izell Williams Jr., the pastor who delivered Mitchell’s eulogy, also fell ill. On March 22, Williams died from the coronavirus. He was 58. ‘An invisible thing’ Albany has had to deal with other disasters over the years, including floods in 1994 and 1998, a pair of tornadoes, just weeks apart, in 2017 that killed several residents, and Hurricane Michael in 2018, which knocked out power for weeks. They had no preparation for a disaster like the coronavirus, besieging the nation before the speed and scale of the threat was recognized. “A storm or a hurricane, you can see the devastation,” said Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler, whose office is straining to keep up with cases. “Here you can’t see nothing. It’s an invisible thing. You can’t see the disaster.” When reports of the virus first came out of China late last year, Phoebe CEO Steiner said the hospital tried to prepare by building up a six-month store of supplies. The hospital burned through that stockpile in seven days when the virus hit, he said. “What we were not prepared for — the sheer numbers,” Steiner said. The hospital then turned to desperate measures to get more supplies, particularly equipment to protect doctors and nurses from the infection. Sellers lit up the hospital’s phone lines offering personal protective equipment — at a price. Phoebe agreed to pay one supplier about $3.5 million for N95 protective masks. Masks normally cost the hospital 58 cents each. Phobe is paying $7 per mask. It paid more than $300,000 for a shipment of 240,000 protective gowns, which turned out to be dust gowns that won’t stop body fluids from seeping through. “It’s a chance we took, right? Because we are desperate to protect our staff, and now we’re back on the phone,” Steiner said. Finally, on Thursday the state gave the hospital eight palettes each stacked 6 feet high with personal protective equipment. Still, Phoebe is straining to care for additional patients as they come in. With every bed in all three of its intensive care units filled, it has turned to hospitals in Columbus, Macon, Tifton, Valdosta and Warner Robins to take transfers. Meanwhile, Phoebe is working to set up overflow units at a mostly empty branch hospital about a mile and a half away. To staff those units, Steiner said he’ll need about 50-75 more nurses, along with more nurse assistants, respiratory therapists and doctors. He has turned to the governor’s office and the Department of Public Health to find those workers.  Phoebe still needs workers to backfill for ill staffers. So far, at least 18 have tested positive for COVID-19. Unable to find replacements to help deal with the crisis, Steiner had told hospital workers to report for duty even if they tested positive, as long as they were symptom free. He said he was acting under CDC and state Public Health guidelines.  On Tuesday, though, new directives forced him to reverse. He said COVID-positive workers are now required to self-quarantine for one week.  The National Guard late last week supplied four additional nurses, 13 medics, a doctor, two physician assistants, a medical supply specialist and 22 other support staff. Dr. Charles Ruis, director of the Southwest Health District that includes Albany, said it was a stroke of bad luck that the city was hit so hard. Other cities shouldn’t count on good luck to spare them. “The message to the rest of the state is, learn all you can from places like Bartow County and Dougherty County and Fulton and others, and understand that making a sacrifice in lifestyle now can pay huge dividends when it comes to life loss in the future,” Ruis said. “When the community gets so sick with COVID-19 that the hospital can barely keep up, then everybody is at risk.”
  • As the death toll from coronavirus mounted, Gov. Brian Kemp pleaded with Georgians during a Thursday statewide televised event to stay home and practice social distancing even as he stressed more drastic measures weren’t yet needed to stem the disease’s spread. Using a prime-time town hall broadcast across the state, the governor urged residents, particularly the “elderly and medically fragile,” to heed state directives and isolate to limit the spread of the virus so he wouldn’t have to impose stiffer restrictions that could further devastate the state’s economy. “I’m having to govern the whole state,” he said, saying that even as more hot spots arise, broad sections of the state have hardly been touched by the virus. “We still have over 50 counties that don’t have a confirmed case yet. We’re trying to balance that.” He added: “If we can get our citizens to follow these directions, it will absolutely turn this curve and we will get on the other side of this virus.” MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak The town hall also featured Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said she respected the governor’s stance but warned that not embracing steeper restrictions could further strain Georgia’s health care system. “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.” Kemp under fire The televised event came on the heels of another grim benchmark, as Georgia’s confirmed coronavirus cases soared past 1,600 on Thursday, roughly doubling the numbers reported by state health officials just three days ago. Over the past two weeks, the disease has claimed the lives of at least 56 Georgians. In another sign of of the widespread reach of the virus, Kemp on Thursday ordered k-12 public schools shut down through April 24 though he stopped short of canceling schools through the end of the year. He said during the town hall that his administration’s health experts said keeping students home another month affords the state more flexibility. “It gives us enough time to really see where this virus is going to go,” he said. “The data we’re seeing today is two weeks old, and the data we’ll be seeing two weeks from now is from today.” >>How is your school handling this extended closure? Are classes online or on paper? Are teachers using video conferences? Let us know at CoronavirusEducation@ajc.com The governor also endorsed the idea of paid sick leave for Georgians knocked out of the workforce by the disease, saying that’s “exactly” what a $2 trillion federal coronavirus package pending in the U.S. House was designed to do. “That’s something we have pushed for,” he said. “I have myself, and the nation’s governors have, because we know that our people are hurting now and we’ve got to continue to fight for them. I’m very hopeful that help will be there shortly.” Kemp has come under intense criticism from epidemiologists and other critics who say the restrictions he’s imposed, which include a ban on many public gatherings and a shutdown of bars and nightclubs, don’t go far enough to contain the highly contagious illness. They were stoked by state Democrats who peppered him with questions using the hashtag #AskGovKemp on Twitter, which was trending throughout the state on Thursday and prompted more than 3,300 replies. Some wanted to press him about his opposition to expanding the Medicaid program, a question he sidestepped Thursday, while others demanded more details about an ongoing shortage of test kits that’s complicating the state’s response. And many wanted to know why he has refused to impose more stringent restrictions that a growing number of local leaders have embraced, a topic that emerged repeatedly during the hourlong town hall. ‘Tremendous concern’ This week, a new wave of cities, including Atlanta and Savannah, adopted shelter-at-home requirements that have contributed to a patchwork of measures. Some local governments are under voluntary curfews, others have far more scaled-back restrictions in place. The governor has said he’s not worried about the uneven response, saying his orders protect vulnerable Georgians while letting local governments take stricter steps if necessary. And he and his aides have voiced concern that stricter rules could erase years of economic growth in a matter of weeks. “What’s good for Atlanta … may not be the correct thing for these other areas where they have limited spread,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner. Bottoms had a contrasting view. During her segment, she expressed worries that Grady Memorial Hospital was already nearing full capacity and that the state’s hospitals could be overwhelmed by early May. “It’s of tremendous concern to me,” she said, adding that she prays the new medical facilities that state authorities are racing to build won’t be necessary. The mayor, a member of Kemp’s coronavirus task force, also said an angel donor has provided a downtown Atlanta hotel for homeless and displaced people who need to be quarantined or isolated due to the coronavirus. Toomey said other areas of the state need aggressive intervention, too. She singled out Albany, the southwest Georgia city where an outbreak linked to two funerals has sickened at least 164 people, straining and has strained the local hospital system. A first shipment of ventilators is headed to Albany imminently, she said, and officials are trying to identify non-traditional sources for life-saving equipement, including technical colleges and universities, to “amass the needed amounts before it comes to that crisis point.” The town hall itself reflected the extraordinary crisis facing Georgia. Metro Atlanta broadcast stations, normally intense competitors, united to televise the event from separate studios miles apart from each other. Kemp held court from the headquarters of Channel 2 Action News, while other officials were scattered among different studios. The event was also broadcast on more than 140 radio stations across the state. Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.
  • Even with investment gains Tuesday, Georgia’s giant teacher pension system, which sends checks to 133,000 retired educators each month, has lost $15 billion this year in the wake of the stock market crash caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The losses since the beginning of the year — about 21% before Tuesday’s gains — could mean state lawmakers will be asked to come up with several hundred million dollars to stabilize the Georgia Teachers Retirement System unless there is a fairly quick bounce back. And it will likely spur a renewed push in the General Assembly to change the system to improve its long-term viability, something teacher and retiree groups have so far been able to beat back. The losses come only a few years after the state hiked taxpayer payments into the system by about $600 million, eating up much of the new tax revenue that came in during 2017 and 2018. And they come after a few good years in the stock market had left the system, which pays an average benefit of about $40,000 a year, in better shape than many big teacher pension systems across the country. The market plummet has hammered the accounts of millions of individual investors, businesses and pension funds. MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak In Georgia, besides the 133,000 members receiving benefits, the TRS promises retirement benefits to more than 200,000 teachers and University System of Georgia staffers in the future. The pensions are funded through a combination of employee contributions, money from taxpayers and investments. At the end of 2019, the TRS had about $83 billion in pension assets. Buster Evans, the executive director of TRS, said that was down to $65 billion by the end of last week. With Tuesday’s market gains, it was up to $68 billion. “It has not been usual to see days when our fund has gone down by $4 billion, then up by $4 billion the next day,” Evans told the TRS board Wednesday. The system’s position in a few months will determine how much employers — the state and school districts — will have to pay into it next year. “By then we will have a better idea,” Evans said. “Will we recover (by then)? I have no expectations we will. Hope we do.” Evans said it will take time for the state and country to recover. “The impact of this is not going to be miraculously gone by Easter time,” he said. Evans said most TRS staff are working remotely and that there will be no interruption in retirees receiving their benefit checks. This isn’t the first stock shock for the TRS. The Great Recession greatly set back the system. Besides the stock market decline, the number of teachers and employees contributing to the fund dropped because jobs were cut or positions went unfilled, and pay raises, which boost employee payments to the system, were scarce for several years. Retirees are living longer, which means more is being paid out. An audit in 2019 said that without any changes, the state and local school district contributions into the system would rise to $2.4 billion by 2025 and $4.4 billion by 2045. That would make contributions into the plan one of the state’s biggest expenses. However, teachers see the chance for educators to retire after 30 years or so and get a good pension as one of the state’s best recruiting tools to attract young people into the profession and keep them in schools. They have been reluctant to support any changes to the TRS, such as proposals to offer 401(k) savings plans, rather than pensions, to new teachers. For several years lawmakers have proposed changes, but they’ve backed down or seen their measures defeated under pressure from teachers and retirees. This year, House Retirement Chairman Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, offered a fairly modest measure that, among other things, would have changed the system so retirees would receive their annual cost-living increase once a year, rather than in separate, twice-a-year increments. It also would have prevented future teachers from being able to count sick leave toward their pension, something that can add $1,000 or more a year to their pension when they retire. Members of the House Retirement Committee were flooded with emails, and the bill went nowhere. Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, a member of the House Retirement Committee who has called the current system unsustainable without changes, was surprised by the size of the TRS’ losses this year. Since actuaries determine how much the state and local school districts should put into the system each year, taxpayers could be hit with a major bill to re-fund the TRS. “What this does for me is show a pointed example of why defined-benefit plans are difficult to maintain in the new economy,” Martin said. Martin said the market is volatile — it has mostly gone up in recent years — and new workers should be given the opportunity to make their own investment decisions in things such as 401(k)s where employers match — up to a point — what employees put into the fund. Many new teachers leave the profession before they vest into the pension, he has noted. With a 401(k) plan, they could take their money with them when they leave. John Palmer, a Cobb County educator who has been among those leading the opposition to teacher pension changes, said he expects another fight from lawmakers. “I think some legislators will use any reason to go after TRS, and I imagine some will use this tragedy to call for changes,” Palmer said. “I would hope, however, that after this crisis passes, more legislators will see the importance of public education to our children and our state,” he added. “If anything, I believe this crisis should show our legislators that public schools, our educators, and every person who works for our children are invaluable to Georgia, and deserve to be fully supported in every way imaginable — including a strong Teachers Retirement System.”
  • Georgia’s 1 million food stamp recipients will get additional money this month as state officials work to ensure all have access to food during the growing coronavirus pandemic. Food stamp recipients will receive the maximum allowed under federal guidelines in March and April. Under the guidelines announced by Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday, a senior citizen who typically receives about $15 in monthly benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, will qualify for the maximum $194 allowed to be given to a household of one. Since food stamps already have been distributed for March, that senior citizen would receive an additional $179 by the end of the month. Recipients will receive the maximum benefit for their household size when SNAP is dispersed in April. “In March and April, approximately 1 million Georgians who receive SNAP will get an additional $100 (on average) in nutrition benefits,” Kemp said. Division of Family and Children Services Director Tom Rawlings said between $15 million and $20 million will be distributed to Georgians in need in March and April. A federally-funded program, no state money is used for SNAP benefits. And need is increasing, he said. DFCS received 12,000 online SNAP applications last week, up from about 6,400 two weeks prior. Additionally, Rawlings said federal law approved last week allows the division to waive the SNAP guidelines that require able-bodied adults without dependents to either work or attend training for at least 20 hours a week. “The law allows us to dismiss those work and training requirements temporarily, but also eases administrative burden on our staff,” he said, freeing them up to process applications. “With a pandemic, a lot of those jobs people might otherwise get have been suspended and jobs just aren’t available right now.” According to federal guidelines, the maximum monthly SNAP benefits that can be given are $194 for a household of one up to $1,164 for a household of eight. The average household receives about $225 monthly in food stamps. Household sizeMaximum benefit1$1942$3553$5094$6465$7686$9217$1,0188$1,164
  • All of Georgia’s 6.9 million active voters will be mailed absentee ballot request forms for the May 19 primary, a major push to encourage voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Tuesday. The absentee voting effort will allow Georgians to decide on their choices for president and other elected offices from home, without having to visit in-person voting locations where the coronavirus could more easily spread. Early voting and Election Day precincts will remain open. A large number of people voting by mail would be a significant change in the way elections are run in Georgia. While the state has allowed any voter to cast a ballot by mail since 2005, just 7% of voters did so in the 2018 election for governor. The state’s absentee ballot initiative follows an agreement by Raffensperger, a Republican, and the Democratic Party of Georgia to delay the previously scheduled March 24 presidential primary because of the coronavirus. The presidential primary will now be held May 19, along with races for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, the Georgia General Assembly and local offices. “Times of turbulence and upheaval like the one we Georgians face require decisive action if the liberties we hold so dear are to be preserved,” Raffensperger said. “I am acting today because the people of Georgia, from the earliest settlers to heroes like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis, have fought too long and too hard for their right to vote to have it curtailed.” Voters will still be required to return their absentee ballot request forms before they receive an actual ballot. MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak Absentee ballot request forms will be mailed to voters next week. Then voters will choose whether they want to vote in the Democratic Party or Republican Party primary, sign their names, add a 55-cent stamp, and put the forms in the mail. County election offices will also accept absentee ballot requests by email. Then election officials will mail the appropriate ballot, which will be counted if it’s received by election offices by the time polls close at 7 p.m. May 19. State Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, praised Raffensperger’s decision. The secretary of state’s office had previously considered only sending absentee request forms to older voters. “This global health emergency showcases exactly why we must embrace solutions that ensure every voter can cast their ballot and have their vote counted without risking their health or that of their loved ones,” Williams said. “I want to thank the secretary of state for putting the people before partisanship.” Williams said more changes are needed to protect voting rights. Election officials should count absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day, and absentee ballots and applications should include prepaid postage, she said. It will cost the state government and taxpayers about $13 million to mail the absentee ballot request forms and issue ballots. Mailing actual ballots to every voter instead of ballot request forms would have been more expensive. Election officials would have had to send three ballots — Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan — risking voter confusion and ballot rejections if voters returned more than one ballot. Georgia is an open primary state, meaning any voter can vote in any party’s primary election. The sharp ramp-up of absentee voting in Georgia could pose a challenge for election officials more accustomed to in-person voting, said Amber McReynolds, the CEO of Vote at Home, an organization that supports voting by mail. “When they’re going to send out applications, if they expect to get even 30% of them back, that’s a couple of million pieces of paper that’s going to have to be processed,” said McReynolds, a former Denver elections director. Before the presidential primary was postponed, about 275,000 voters cast ballots during early voting. Those ballots will still be counted. Voters who already participated in the presidential primary will receive ballots with other races during the May 19 election. Voters who haven’t yet participated in the presidential primary will receive ballots that include both presidential candidates and other candidates. “These steps are critical in this temporary environment to protect our poll workers and give our counties time to successfully plan for the Georgia general primary in May,” said state Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, a Republican from Gainesville. Raffensperger said it’s also important to maintain in-person voting options for people who are homeless, need language assistance and have disabilities. In addition, eliminating in-person voting would disproportionately disenfranchise black, Latino and young voters, according to the secretary of state’s office, citing research from the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute at New York University that focuses on democracy and criminal justice. To protect in-person voters and poll workers, voting locations will be stocked with cleaning supplies for election equipment, Raffensperger said. Voters will be instructed to maintain a safe distance to limit the threat of spreading the coronavirus. Because many elderly poll workers have quit, Raffensperger said he will work to help county election offices hire younger poll workers who are less likely to be at risk from the coronavirus.
  • Two Georgia health care workers died late last week after contracting the novel coronavirus, apparently the state’s first medical personnel claimed by the pandemic. A 48-year-old woman who worked at Donalsonville Hospital in southwestern Georgia tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and died Thursday at a hospital in Tallahassee, Florida. The same day, a mammogram technician at Piedmont Newnan Hospital was found dead in her Coweta County home. Laboratory tests confirmed the woman had COVID-19, Coweta County Coroner Richard Hawk said. The woman, 42, had been dead 12 to 16 hours when the police, checking on her welfare, discovered her body, Hawk said. Her child, apparently 4 or 5 years old, was in the home at the time. » AJC COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia News of the deaths emerged Monday, as state officials announced that 800 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Georgia, up by 180 since the previous day. The death toll rose by one to 26. Twenty-five Georgians have died from the virus in the past week. Meanwhile on Monday, the DeKalb County schools reported that an employee had tested positive for the coronavirus. The employee did not expose any students to possible infection, the school district said. Four inmates at Lee State Prison in South Georgia are hospitalized with COVID-19, and 10 others are quarantined in the prison with symptoms. The Fulton County Jail announced its first diagnosed case, a man in his 30s with a chronic illness. To avoid transmission of the disease, the Fulton jail released 30 nonviolent prisoners. Hall County turned loose 200 prisoners, all either accused of nonviolent misdemeanors or age 60 or older and considered no threat to the public. » READ: Hall, Fulton counties releasing nonviolent offenders early as virus looms Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday the state is delivering protective gear and other emergency medical supplies to hospitals across Georgia. He ordered people most vulnerable to infection — including residents of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, and those being treated for cancer — to shelter at home until next month. Health care workers across the nation have expressed fears about contracting the coronavirus or exposing their family members to it. The shortage of protective masks and gowns has only heightened their anxiety. » READ: With Georgia at ‘tipping point,’ Kemp orders more social distancing Safety is key in caring for patients with infectious diseases, said Irma Westmoreland, a longtime nurse at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta. “We know how to do it,” she said, “we just have to have the right protective equipment.” Officials declined to identify either of the Georgia health care workers who died. In Donalsonville, the 48-year-old woman had a chronic health condition, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. In a statement, Donalsonville Hospital did not describe her job. “Healthcare workers are on the front lines of fighting the virus and deserve the utmost respect and honor for doing their jobs,” the hospital said. Another hospital employee who tested positive for COVID-19 is self-quarantined at home. In Newnan, the 42-year-old technician had exhibited flu-like symptoms about a week before she died, said Hawk, the county coroner. She had no underlying health problems, Hawk said, and did not get tested for the coronavirus. A friend of the woman’s called the police when she didn’t answer telephone calls for several days. When officers entered the home, they found the woman’s body — and her child, unattended. Hawk said he did not know whether the child has been tested for COVID-19 or has shown symptoms of the virus. John Manasso, a spokesman for Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta, said the employee did not work in a part of the Newnan hospital where patients with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 are being treated. But the hospital is contacting other employees and patients who may have come into contact with the woman before her last day at work, Manasso said. “Piedmont is providing these individuals with detailed information for self-monitoring,” he said in an email, “and will offer COVID-19 testing to those who request it.” Staff writers Carrie Teegardin, Ariel Hart, Marlon A. Walker and Christian Boone contributed to this article.
  • Despite likely short-term financial damage to the state budget, Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday that Georgia will move its deadline for filing income tax returns from April 15 to July 15 amid the coronavirus pandemic. The federal government had announced Friday that its income tax return deadline would be extended three months. The move will provide relief to some taxpayers, and forcing governments to wait for tax payments may not seem like a big deal.  But the state's fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. So the decision will move the filing deadline into fiscal 2021, the next fiscal year. The state, by law, must end the fiscal year with a balanced budget. The change is less of an issue for the federal government, which ends its fiscal year Sept. 30 and borrows to keep funding its spending. The state collects roughly $2.8 billion worth of income taxes in March and April. At least some of those payments will now likely be delayed. The state was already facing a major potential shortfall this fiscal year as businesses close, Georgians lose jobs and economic activity in general slows dramatically in response to the virus. Less economic activity means less tax revenue.  Kemp last week signed a $27.5 billion mid-year budget that was meant to fund state services -- from teacher salaries and the state patrol to health care programs working to address the pandemic -- through June 30.  However, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the virus' economic impact is expected to mean the state won't be able to meet that budget without using state reserves, federal assistance or cutting spending. Or a combination of all three. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he is expecting that state lawmakers will face a “do over” on the budget it passed earlier this month. Besides paying for a huge range of services, the state budget at least partially funds the salaries of more than 200,000 Georgians, from teachers and university staffers to prison guards, food safety inspectors, park rangers and criminal investigators. Income taxes are the top source of revenue for the state, and Georgia collects about 20 percent of its income taxes in March and April. In a conference call President Donald Trump held with governors last week, Kemp made a case for federal help. Kemp did the same in a letter to Congressional leaders Monday, along with about 20 other Republican governors.  The state has about $2.6 billion to $2.7 billion in reserves, enough to fund services for about a month without other revenue. Kemp has already committed $100 million worth of reserves to fight the pandemic.
  • Five of the eight justices on the Georgia Supreme Court on Monday disqualified themselves from a case calling for an open election for Justice Keith Blackwell’s seat. Justices Charles Bethel, Michael Boggs, John Ellington, Nels Peterson and Blackwell recused themselves from hearing appeals filed by former U.S. Rep. John Barrow and former state Rep. Beth Beskin. Both contend there should be an election that allows voters to choose a successor to Blackwell, who announced in February that he is resigning from the court in November. Barrow and Beskin are appealing an order by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Emily Richardson, who ruled that Blackwell’s seat officially became vacant when Gov. Brian Kemp accepted Blackwell’s resignation. Per Richardson’s decision, an election is unnecessary because Kemp gets to appoint Blackwell’s successor. In Monday’s order, Chief Justice Harold Melton and Justices David Nahmias and Sarah Warren denied a request filed by Barrow last week that they recuse themselves because of possible conflicts of interest. The three “carefully considered the motion to recuse him or her,” the court said in an order, without further explanation. In a motion last week, Barrow’s lawyers said the seven justices besides Blackwell should disqualify themselves from a case involving their colleague. With such a relationship, the justices’ impartiality could reasonably be questioned, the motion said. It also disclosed that Buddy Darden, one of the lawyers representing Barrow, is an honorary co-chair of Warren’s election campaign. Lester Tate, one of Barrow’s lawyers, said he was shocked that Melton, Nahmias and Warren did not disqualify themselves and called their decisions “inconsistent with principles of openness and impartiality.” The court asked the parties a number of questions in its order issued Monday. One concerned the time crunch requiring a ruling before the May 19 elections. For example, could the election be moved to coincide with the July election or the November election? the court asked. The court noted that five Superior Court judges were randomly selected as replacements for the justices who recused: Scott Ballard of the Griffin Judicial Circuit, Brenda Trammell of the Ocmulgee circuit, Richard Cowart of the Southern circuit, Sarah Wall of the Oconee circuit, and Timothy Walmsley of the Eastern circuit. The state high court normally has nine justices, but the governor has yet to appoint a successor to Robert Benham, who retired March 1. If the appointment is made while the election case is still pending, the new justice can participate in the appeals brought by Barrow and Beskin, unless that justice also decides to recuse, the order said.
  • U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler had been on the job less than three weeks when she attended a private, senators-only briefing on the spread of COVID-19.  In the  days and weeks after, financial disclosures show that either she or her spouse sold up to $3.1 million in stocks. They made just two purchase, both in companies whose software technology is now in demand as Americans are forced to work from home to stem the rise of the coronavirus.  These transactions have raised questions about whether Loeffler dumped stocks based on inside information she learned during the Jan. 24 briefing or others she was privy to as a senator. And the scrutiny of her financial deals have led both Democrats and Republicans to ask for her to resign or be investigated. One watchdog group has already filed an ethics complaint. Loeffler says she has done nothing wrong and any decisions about what stocks she or her spouse bought or sold were made by financial advisers who acted independently.  “There is a range of different decisions made every day with regard to my savings and 401(k) portfolios that I am not involved in,” Loeffler said during an interview on Fox News. “And certainly, like any other trade, you can’t see into the future.”  Loeffler, who was appointed to the Senate by Gov. Brian Kemp, has not yet filed a full accounting of her personal wealth but public records show she and her husband are worth more than $500 million. Loeffler’s office did not respond to questions asking for details about how the transactions were made. She said  she wasn’t aware of transactions made until Feb. 16, three weeks after some of them occurred.  Laws prevent members of Congress from profiting off inside information they learn through their elected offices that is not available to the public. In addition to the questions about Loeffler’s financial dealings, there has been scrutiny over financial transactions made by other senators, including Richard Burr of North Carolina, Dianne Feinstein of California, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and, to a lesser extent, Georgia Sen. David Perdue.  Common Cause, a nonpartisan grassroots organization, filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee calling for investigations of Burr, Feinstein, Loeffler and Inhofe for possible violations of the STOCK Act, a law that prohibits senators from using inside information for financial gain. The conversation about senators’ financial dealings during the coronavirus outbreak started with articles by ProPublica and the Center for Responsive Politics that said Burr sold up to $1.7 million in stocks during the same time he was receiving daily briefings on the topic and before the stock market began to decline.  Burr said Friday that he had asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review his transactions to ensure there was nothing improper. Loeffler’s office did not say whether she will also ask for the same review of her stock sell-off.  Loeffler’s financial disclosures were first analyzed in a Daily Beast article that said she or her husband, Jeff Sprecher, whose company owns the New York Stock Exchange, sold somewhere between $1.3 million to $3.1 million in stocks from Jan. 24 through Feb. 14.  During that same time, their total stock purchases were somewhere between $200,002 and $500,000. That includes up to $250,000 in stocks for Citrix, a company that provides work-from-home software, and up to $250,000 invested in Oracle, the computer technology company.  Senators are required to report financial transactions within 30 days, but only in ranges that shield the exact amount of individual trades. Even if there was no insider trading, the optics of a senator unloading investments in the weeks prior to major drop in the stock market is bound to bring negative attention, several experts in securities laws said.  The conversation about Loeffler and the other senators’ financial deals also has resurfaced years-old debates about whether members of Congress should be barred from buying and selling stocks in individual companies.  “The risk level increases both in terms of violating the law and in terms of breaching the ethics duty you have to the public the more it seems like you are invested in a particular industry or company,” said Usha Rodrigues, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law.  Republican allies of Loeffler’s top conservative adversary, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, openly worried about the fallout of her stock sales. House Speaker David Ralston, a longtime Collins friend, said in an interview Friday that he’s heard from “upset” House candidates concerned that the Republican ticket will get tainted in November by Loeffler’s financial dealings.  “I’m absolutely worried about the down-ticket damage,” said Ralston. “A lot of people are going to associate these activities with some very fine candidates running for the Georgia House and are going to hold that against us.” Collins, a four-term Gainesville congressman, has long painted Loeffler as a flimsy conservative intent on using her deep personal wealth to secure her Senate seat. He seemed certain to use stock trades to further that narrative through the November’s winner-take-all special election. “People are losing their jobs, their businesses, their retirements, and even their lives and Kelly Loeffler is profiting off their pain?” said Collins. “I'm sickened just thinking about it.” The Democratic Party of Georgia and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which are fielding challengers to Loeffler and Perdue, said both senators should be investigated.  Perdue, like Loeffler, was already wealthy before he joined the U.S. Senate. His net worth is estimated to be between $14.9 million and $42.6 million. In nearly 100 transactions from late January through mid-February, he bought and sold in equal amounts. Perdue’s transactions do not indicate the same sell-off as his counterpart Loeffler.  His staff was also eager to distance himself from the controversy surrounding her, pointing out that he has always used an independent adviser to make financial decisions.  However, there are still questions about his transaction, too.  Perdue invested up to $245,000 in Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, during multiple transactions around the same time that members of Congress began sounding the alarm that more should be done to address the spread of the virus.  Perdue also sold up to $165,000 in stocks for Caesar Entertainment, the casino company whose facilities have shuttered to help combat the spread of the virus. Both senators had praised President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic even as Democrats accused the White House of being slow to act and downplaying, at least initially, the severity of its spread.  On Jan. 24, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee -- Loeffler is a member -- and the Foreign Relations Committee -- Perdue is a member -- held a briefing on coronavirus that was open to the entire Senate.  Perdue’s total sales in the weeks after fall anywhere between $148,050 to $995,000 and his purchases are in the range of $141,043 to $890,000. Among his new investments are stocks in Disney and Delta Airlines, companies that haven’t fared well during the outbreak.  “In the last five years, I’ve had outside professionals that manage my personal affairs,” Perdue said in an interview with Nexstar Media Group. “I don’t deal with it on a day-to-day basis. I think if you look through that period of time, you will find purchases and sales just like you would last year this time or any other time.”  The best way for members of Congress to avoid question about their stock trading is to avoid investing directly in companies, securities law experts said, either by creating a qualified blind trust or investing solely in mutual funds or similar financial vehicles that combine a pool of products.  “They shouldn’t be allowed to own individual stocks,” Richard Painter, a corporate law professor at the University of Minnesota, said. He worked as a White House associate counsel during the George W. Bush years. “They should be subject to the same conflict of interest laws that apply to executive branch officials.”  Reporters Chris Joyner and Greg Bluestein and audience specialist Isaac Sabetai contributed to this report. .
  • Georgia’s entire legislative branch was urged to self-isolate after a state senator revealed he tested positive for coronavirus, two days after he showed up for a special session vote with symptoms of the disease while he was waiting for the results. The development sparked outrage from some of his colleagues, a reprimand from Gov. Brian Kemp and new scrutiny over recent decisions by legislative leaders that could have prolonged the exposure to hundreds of people at the Capitol. All 236 Georgia lawmakers and dozens of the Legislature’s staffers, along with teenage pages, received memos late Wednesday urging them to isolate themselves for two weeks after the state senator, Brandon Beach, disclosed his positive test for COVID-19. What infuriated many was his admission that he still attended votes over the past week as he suffered from a mild fever and a cough — two of the most frequent symptoms of the virus. On Monday, Beach told bystanders he wasn’t feeling well and was visibly fighting a cold. In a statement, the Alpharetta Republican said he was tested for the disease on Saturday and, while still awaiting the results, felt he “was in the clear” to attend a special session vote Monday that granted Kemp new authority to respond to the pandemic. “I know many Georgians are praying hard as we weather this crisis together, and frankly, I’d ask that they pray for me,” Beach said, “as well as all the others in our state who are going through this right now — and those who soon will.” His decision to show up sick at the Capitol amid a pandemic was swiftly condemned by colleagues who admonished him for ignoring the warnings of health officials and state leaders who had urged Georgians for days to stay home if they showed any sign of illness. “His hubris was mind-boggling,” said state Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna. “You’ve got people from every corner of the state working together under the same roof, giving out advice to the public. But we weren’t holding ourselves to the same standard that we expected.” The governor chastened Beach as well, casting his decision as a “good example why people need to do what we’re asking them to do.” “The biggest thing is social distance yourself,” Kemp said in an interview on 680 The Fan. “If you are sick, do not — do not — go out. Stay home until you can figure out what’s going on. Don’t go to the doctor. Don’t show up at the emergency room. Don’t show up at work.” ‘Floored me’ In quick succession, both Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the Senate president, and House Speaker David Ralston sent emails to lawmakers and staffers urging them to isolate themselves through March 30 because of their potential exposure to Beach and others he could have infected. Inboxes and social media feeds were soon full of updates from lawmakers who said they were heeding the order and going into personal quarantine. Some legislators sent emails to constituents trumpeting that they were in “good health.” Kemp, too, was forced to answer questions about whether he also would isolate himself because of his interactions with Beach, who as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee frequently met with the governor and his administration’s aides. “I never interacted with any legislators” on Monday, the governor said. “I was asked to come speak to the caucus meetings. I told them that was a bad idea. We ended up doing that by phone calls on Sunday night and Monday morning.” It also triggered new scrutiny of a series of decisions and mixed messages over the past week from legislative leaders concerning the threat of the growing pandemic. The third floor of the Capitol — where the House and Senate chambers are located — is packed tightly on session days with hundreds of lobbyists, visiting members of professional associations, Georgians there to be recognized for various achievements, lawmakers and pages. With so many people in close proximity, colds and the flu can be easily passed around over the winter months. On March 10, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia began to mount, Ralston suspended the student page program, banned most guests and urged the public “in the strongest possible terms” to watch proceedings from afar. The same day, Duncan sent out a statement saying the chamber would “be open for the people’s business” with no changes. Anulewicz remembers expressing shock a few days later when she saw a gaggle of teenage students in the Senate as lawmakers prepared to suspend the session. “It floored me,” she said. Duncan’s top aide, John Porter, said the lieutenant governor had no regrets about his decision to continue normal operations. “I’m sure all of us will reflect back on this time and think of things they could have done better, different, sooner or later, etc.,” Porter said. “However, I’m 100 percent confident that all the decisions we’ve made regarding the operation of the Senate have been sound and arrived upon after thorough and careful deliberation.” Others raised the possibility that Beach could have exposed many older lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists over the past week. State Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat, pointed out the high number of aging senators and doorkeepers who are thought to be more susceptible to the virus. “What we’ve seen is because the lack of tests available, if you actually get one — if a doctor thinks your symptoms are severe enough that you need to be tested — you need to stay home,” she said. On March 12, legislators indefinitely postponed the legislative session until the public health crisis subsided, although House lawmakers stayed in the building to pass a flurry of measures through midnight to the chagrin of many of the legislators. They were unexpectedly brought back to the General Assembly by Kemp’s declaration of a public health emergency, a decision that required lawmakers to reconvene at the state Capitol on Monday for a one-day session. As a nurse patrolled outside to do spot checks of passersby who volunteered — no fevers were reported — lawmakers filed in for an 8 a.m. session that was expected to last roughly an hour. But the schedule was upended as House and Senate leaders couldn’t agree on whether to put an expiration date on the declaration, extending what should have been a quick process to an eight-hour vote. Beach is the first known state lawmaker to test positive for the virus that has sickened at least 287 in Georgia and is linked to 10 deaths, though state Sen. Bruce Thompson said he had been hospitalized in an intensive care unit and awaiting test results. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was feeling better and doctors are working to “heal my lungs.” It’s not immediately clear how Beach, who was not hospitalized, obtained the test. Kemp has ordered health officials to ration tests to those most at risk of infection, such as older residents, medical workers and first responders. His office said Thursday that the policy included testing for specific lawmakers who are health care workers, though that wouldn’t include Beach, an economic development specialist. His colleagues, meanwhile, scrambled Thursday to decide whether they would isolate themselves for the next two weeks or just take other precautions to steer clear of the public. Each received a memo from the Department of Public Health advising them how to “closely monitor” their health. Some of Beach’s allies said it was only a matter of time until someone in the building came down with the disease. “I don’t think he was the first case — he might have been the first case to test positive,” said state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. “But it probably had already been in the building. This has been a learning experience for all of us.” Others could hardly contain their frustration. “I’m so angry,” said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, an Emory University microbiologist. “I am now having to self-quarantine because people don’t think the rules apply to them.”

News

  • With more states imposing “safer at home” and quarantine orders because of the coronavirus, families and friends are searching for ways to stay connected. Sure, the telephone works, but more people are using video apps for face-to-face contact. It’s a good way for older citizens to connect with grandchildren without worrying about coming in contact. While hugs may be precious, people are becoming more aware of staying isolated. There are plenty of ways to connect. Here is a look at 12 video-chatting applications: Zoom: This app appears to be geared toward business, but families can use Zoom too. Users initiating a meeting are taken to a virtual room that looks like a table in a conference room. Personal groups of up to 100 people can meet online for free. Business options include packages for sale that allow up to 1,000 participants. Facebook Live: Viewers can connect in real-time from their cellphones, computers and even through their television set. FaceTime: This app, though the Apple store, allows users to make video and audio calls to groups of up to 32 people. FaceTime is available on Apple products including iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. Facebook Messenger: Similar to FaceTime, Messenger allows free video calling around the world for individuals or groups of up to six. It can be used on cellphones, tablets and computers. Skype: This app has been around for a while. Skype can accommodate groups of up to 50 people worldwide, It can be used on computers, mobile devices, XBox One and even smartwatches. WhatsApp: More than 2 billion users take advantage of the WhatsApp. The mobile app works on Android and iOS platforms, making it a good choice for people with friends owning diverse types of devices. The free app allows groups of up to four users per session. Tango: You know the old phrase. It takes two to Tango, and this app restricts video contact to two people. This free app is good but only two! The free app is good for video calling one other person at a time. You can also make voice calls, send messages and play games using Tango. Google Hangouts: This app is free in its basic form. Google Hangouts allows up to 10 participants at a time. You can even video chat through your Gmail accounts. Instagram: Up to six people can video chat at once via Instagram. Houseparty: This video chat app is owned by Epic Games, which developed Fortnite. Houseparty allows people to play video games or test trivia skills through its interface. It is available through Android, iOS, MacOs and Chrome. Snapchat: With Chat 2.0, Snapchat users can use a full, featured video chat service. Snapchat is free to use, but can chew up a lot of data time. It is recommended to connect to a wireless network before making your call. Viber: The Viber app is good for international calls and one-on-one video calls. Calls between Viber users are free, but a fee will apply for calling people without the app.
  • Tom Coburn, a former U.S. senator from Oklahoma known as a conservative political maverick, died after a battle with prostate cancer, according to The Associated Press. He was 72. Coburn retired from the Senate in 2015 after being diagnosed with cancer. He served two terms from 2005 to 2015, KOKI reported. “Oklahoma has lost a tremendous leader, and I lost a great friend today,' U.S. Sen. James Lankford said in a statement. “Dr. Coburn was an inspiration to many in our state and our nation. He was unwavering in his conservative values, but he had deep and meaningful friendships with people from all political and personal backgrounds. He was truly respected by people on both sides of the aisle.” In the Senate, Coburn was the ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security and also served on the committees on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; and Intelligence. From 1995 to 2001, Coburn represented Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. A family physician, Coburn was a member of the Committee on Commerce, where he sat on the subcommittees on Health and Environment as vice-chairman, Energy & Power, and Oversight and Investigations. Coburn was also selected co-chair of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS in 2001. Services for Coburn have not been announced, KOKI reported.
  • Florida senior citizens who live in a downtown Orlando high-rise flickered the lights of their apartments Friday in a show of support for the doctors and nurses who are trying to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. Residents of Westminster Towers flickered their apartment lights at 9 p.m. to show support for the medical professionals working at Orlando Health. “Tonight, we flashed all of our lights to show our thanks to the hero health care workers at Orlando Regional Medical Center as they work hard to treat the sick and keep us safe from COVID-19,” Westminster Towers said on Facebook. “Thank you.” The display could be seen from the hospital campus, which is near the apartment building. “Thank you (Westminster Towers) for lighting up the night and our hearts,” the hospital network said on Facebook. “We’re all in this together.”
  • The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia climbed to 2,366 Saturday as the state’s death toll reached 69. Since Friday evening, the confirmed number of Georgians who have died as a result of COVID-19 increased by four, according to the latest data from the Georgia Department of Public Health.  » COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia Health officials also confirmed an additional 168 cases since the 7 p.m. update. Of Georgia’s overall cases, 617 people remain hospitalized, a rate of about 26%, according to the state’s noon figures.  Fulton County still has the most cases with 373, followed by DeKalb with 240, Dougherty County with 205, and Cobb with 181.  As of Monday, the number of confirmed cases across the state was fewer than 1,000 Since Friday evening, Fulton has 26 new cases, while DeKalb has 21 more and 18 more people tested positive in Cobb. Four counties also reported their first cases, including Murray, Walton, Jenkins and Pike.  » MORE: City under siege: Coronavirus exacts heavy toll in Albany A total of 11,051 tests have been conducted so far in Georgia. About 21.4% of those returned positive results. On Friday afternoon, the DPH started releasing data on where people died. Dougherty County leads the count with 13 deaths, followed by Fulton with 12, Cobb County with eight, and Lee County with five. About 2.9% of Georgians who have tested positive for the highly contagious disease have died. » DASHBOARD: Real-time stats and charts tracking coronavirus in Georgia For most, COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms. Older adults and those with existing health problems are at risk of more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover in a matter of weeks. As numbers spike across the state, Gov. Brian Kemp is urging Georgians to stay home and practice social distancing. At a town hall broadcast Thursday evening, Kemp told residents to heed directives to avoid more restrictive measures, such as a statewide stay-at-home mandate. » RELATED: Kemp urges Georgians to heed virus warnings but balks at drastic steps Bars and nightclubs remain closed across the state, many public gatherings are banned, and the elderly and medically fragile are ordered to shelter in place. » PHOTOS: Metro Atlanta adjusts to shifts in daily life amid coronavirus crisis Many metro Atlanta cities and counties have issued their own stay-at-home orders to residents, shutting down nonessential businesses and imposing curfews. » MORE: DeKalb County issues stay-at-home order Speaking on CNN Saturday morning, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said metro Atlanta’s hospitals are already nearing capacity.  “...We are a large urban city in an even larger metropolitan area, so on a good day our hospitals and our ICU beds are at a premium,” she said. “What people have to realize is strokes don’t stop, diabetes and these things that send people into our emergency rooms, these things continue. It’s stressing our health care system and you add this pandemic on top of it and we have a real problem of it brewing right here in Atlanta.” » RELATED: Bottoms: Stay home so others ‘have an opportunity to simply live’ Those who believe they are experiencing symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19 are asked to contact their primary care doctor or an urgent care clinic. Do not show up unannounced at an emergency room or health care facility. Georgians can also call the state COVID-19 hotline at 844-442-2681 to share public health information and connect with medical professionals.  — Please return to AJC.com for updates.
  • He has been a prominent face during the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings. Now, Anthony Fauci’s face is prominently featured on doughnuts in a New York shop. According to WHAM-TV, Donuts Delite, in Rochester, introduced the sweet treat Monday as a tribute to Fauci, 79, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a doctor for the National Institutes of Health. Nick Semeraro, owner of Donut Delites, said his employees have made “thousands” of doughnuts, the television station reported. “We wanted to find a way to cheer up the people in our neighborhood,” Semeraro told CNN. “We noticed Dr. Fauci on (television), and we loved his message and how thorough he was, and how he kept everyone informed during the crisis... so we wanted to give back and say thanks.” The shop printed Fauci’s face on edible paper and put it on top of a buttercream-frosted doughnut, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported. Fauci’s image was then encircled with frosting decorated with red, white and blue sprinkles, the newspaper reported. “Right now, we’re selling over 100 an hour at least,” Semararo told WHAM. “We had no idea they would blow up like that. “It just started as a tribute,” Semararo told the television station. “It started as a thank you. It’s sticking, and I think it’s great. People are stuck at home and what’s happening is, it’s starting conversations. Whether they pick it up for someone, it starts that thinking outside of the box and giving back.” Semararo said he would continue to make the doughnuts as long as there is a demand. “I never met a guy that worldwide (who) is so loved,” Semeraro told CNN. “And a month ago, we never knew his first and last name... His political agenda is medical. It’s facts ... the American public needs facts now.”
  • The chief executive officer of Texas Roadhouse restaurants said he is giving up his salary and bonus so the chain’s front-line employees can be paid during the coronavirus pandemic. Wayne Kent Taylor will begin donating his checks from the pay period beginning March 18 through Jan. 7, 2021, Market Watch reported Wednesday. Louisville Business First reported Taylor’s total compensation package in 2018 was $1.3 million with his base salary being $525,000. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Texas Roadhouse said it is also suspending its dividend in an effort to conserve cash during the pandemic, according to Market Watch. Texas Roadhouse, a publicly traded company based in Kentucky, employs more than 56,000 workers and has 563 locations in the U.S. and internationally, the website reported. Taylor, 63, founded the chain in 1993, opening his first restaurant in Clarksville, Indiana, USA Today reported.