THANK YOU:

$104,854 raised for the Atlanta Community Food Bank. WE ARE #StrongerTogetherATL

Coronavirus:

What You Need To Know

On Air Now

Listen Now

Weather

clear-day
84°
Partly Cloudy
H 84° L 66°
  • clear-day
    84°
    Current Conditions
    Partly Cloudy. H 84° L 66°
  • cloudy-day
    84°
    Today
    Partly Cloudy. H 84° L 66°
  • heavy-rain-day
    76°
    Tomorrow
    Chance of Rain. H 76° L 56°
Listen
Pause
Error

News on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

Listen
Pause
Error

Traffic on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

Listen
Pause
Error

Weather on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

    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.”
  • Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce declared a State of Emergency for the county Tuesday night and ordered residents to shelter in place in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.  “This is unprecedented times for the nation, state and Cobb County,” Boyce said in a statement. “The health and safety of our residents is our top priority. We are taking the necessary steps as recommended by public health experts to ensure that the county is prepared and responding to this virus, and this order helps us do that.” From 12 pm Wednesday until April 15, public gatherings — whether inside or outdoors — of more than 10 people are prohibited anywhere in the county, it said.  Furthermore, businesses not included in the list of “essential” businesses published in the order can only operate from 6 am to 9 pm. Restaurants may only provide takeout or delivery services.  Boyce said he may amend the declaration to close all non-essential businesses and tighten other restrictions if the new measures do not slow the virus sufficiently.  The chairman’s decision followed a special called meeting Tuesday where public health experts issued grave warnings about the COVID-19 pandemic. Janet Memarck, director of Cobb and Douglas Public Health, and Daniel Branstetter, the medical director of infection prevention at Wellstar, both warned that the county was dangerously close to exceeding the capacity of its healthcare system given the exponential infection rate of COVID-19.  They emphasized Cobb’s density and many older residents and elder care facilities as particular risk factors.  “Eighty percent of people standing in this room will get COVID-19 no matter what action you take today,” said Branstetter, emphasizing the need to slow the infection rate and spread it out over time. “What we need to do is put in measures so our healthcare personnel can be available, the equipment, the supplies, the testing, medications, the ventilators can be available to take care of each and every one of us,” he added.  Boyce called the information “sobering.” “Not enough people are really taking this seriously because not enough people that they know have been infected,” Boyce said. “This is a virulent disease and we have to start taking it seriously.”
  • 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.
  • Georgia’s Phoebe Putney Health System, facing a growing outbreak of the coronavirus, has loaded templates to make face masks online for donors locally and around the world to help the hospital group overcome a dire shortage of supplies. Phoebe Putney, which operates four hospitals in the Albany area, said Sunday it posted the instructions because the system has been flooded with offers to help with the supply shortfall. System leaders have said supplies of protective gear such as gowns, gloves, eye shields and special N95 respirator masks are in short supply. Employees at Phoebe Putney started sewing their own masks for hospital workers to cover their remaining N95s and extend the N95s’ life spans. “We have been overwhelmed with calls from people around the country who also want to help,” Phoebe Director of Volunteer Services Suzanne Perrine said in a news release. “While we can only provide materials to local volunteers, we are happy to share our mask-making instructions with volunteers and hospitals around the country. We will gladly accept masks from those who want to support Phoebe, and we encourage Americans to support hospitals in need in their communities as well.” Mask-making instructions and lists of needed supplies are posted online at http://www.phoebehealth.com/coronavirus. The hospital group said masks can be mailed to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, c/o Supply Chain, 1108 North Monroe St. Albany, Ga., 31701. » COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia Hospitals across the nation have been gripped by a shortage of coronavirus tests, protective gear and medical equipment such as swabs, complicating care of critically ill patients and putting hospital workers at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Just before noon on Sunday, Phoebe Putney reported more than 100 positive and suspected positive cases of COVID-19 at its main hospital. The system has reported 103 confirmed positive cases overall and six deaths. Nearly 700 other patients, either in-patient or out-patient, are awaiting results of coronavirus tests. Phoebe Putney said its employees and volunteers use surgical sheets to manufacture reusable masks, which are treated with water repellant. The system said if donors do not have surgical sheets, a thicker grade and washable 50/50 or 60/40 cotton-polyester blend fabric can be used. Albany’s Sherwood Baptist Church Hope Center also has set up a collection site to assist the hospitals. A list of needed supplies includes N95 masks, surgical masks, isolation gowns, gloves and sanitizing wipes. The hospital group is also seeking fruit and individually wrapped foods, such as nuts and cereal bars. Donations can be made Monday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 925 Pine Ave. Albany, Ga., 31701. The Phoebe Foundation is also accepting coronavirus relief donations at www.supportphoebe.org/coronavirusrelief. “We can’t say ‘thank you’ enough for everyone who has offered help,” Scott Steiner, Phoebe Putney’s CEO, said in the release. “The Phoebe Family feels your support, and you are helping us provide outstanding care and service to the people of southwest Georgia through this public health emergency.”

News

  • A group of protesters ignored a stay-at-home order so they could gather in front of a North Carolina women’s clinic. The city of Charlotte received complaints Saturday morning about people possibly not following Mecklenburg County’s stay-at-home order. There was a protest at a preferred women’s health center in the Grier Heights neighborhood. “They’re putting our first responders at risk if they have to show up,” Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said. “I just think it’s unconscionable. You can agree or disagree with reproductive health care, but it doesn’t matter. It’s legal. It’s deemed an essential business.”
  • Residents of several communities have come up with a fun way to keep kids entertained while school is out. Cities and towns such as Boston, Walpole, Haverhill, Leominster and others have organized “bear hunts,” where residents place teddy bears in their windows so kids can drive or walk around spotting the bears. “As we take our daily walks, we look at everybody’s windows to see if we can find a teddy bear,” said Candida Shepard, a mother. Shepard’s 4-year-old twins, Payton and Ayden, have taken up the fun activity in their Hyde Park neighborhood as more neighbors join in on the fun. “We saw the teddies in the window,” said Payton. The “bear hunts” are inspired by a children’s book, and residents can add their streets to a map on social media that parents use to trace the route they will take their kids on walks or drives, looking - at a safe distance - for the bears displayed in the windows. “It’s something nice to chime in about rather than something dismal, which is going on right now,” said Mary Francis, who put a teddy bear in her window. The Shepard twins’ grandmother placed teddy bears in her window, enjoying the cheer they bring to the youngest neighbors who have been home from school and stuck in the house. “People are actually walking by with a big smile on their face,” said Francis. Kids and adults alike are entertained and uplifted by the sight of the bears in the windows, a heartwarming illustration of how communities are doing everything they can to take care of each other. As volunteers step up to produce masks and donate supplies to medical workers, initiatives like the bear hunt aim to help keep people’s mental health strong. Something as simple as a teddy bear on a windowsill can be the light in someone’s day. As the twins write encouraging messages for others to stay hopeful during a scary time with their mom, a health care worker, they’re also thinking of their family in Italy. The country has been hit the hardest by the virus, where the outbreak has been the most rampant. “Stay safe from the ‘Canola’ virus,” Ayden wrote. If you want to participate, just search in your local community’s Facebook group to find a bear hunt near you.
  • 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.
  • More than a fifth of Detroit's police force is quarantined; two officers have died from coronavirus and at least 39 have tested positive, including the chief of police. For the 2,200-person department, that has meant officers working doubles and swapping between units to fill patrols. And everyone has their temperature checked before they start work. An increasing number of police departments around the country are watching their ranks get sick as the number of coronavirus cases explodes across the U.S. The growing tally raises questions about how laws can and should be enforced during the pandemic, and about how departments will hold up as the virus spreads among those whose work puts them at increased risk of infection.  »Sign up for our new coronavirus newsletter “I don’t think it’s too far to say that officers are scared out there,” said Sgt. Manny Ramirez, president of Fort Worth Police Officers Association. Nearly 690 officers and civilian employees at police departments and sheriff’s offices around the country have tested positive for COVID-19, according to an Associated Press survey this week of over 40 law enforcement agencies, mostly in major cities. The number of those in isolation as they await test results is far higher in many places. Anticipating shortages, police academies are accelerating coursework to provide reinforcements. Masks, gloves and huge volumes of hand sanitizer have been distributed. Roll call and staff meetings are happening outside, over the phone or online. Precinct offices, squad cars and equipment get deep cleaned in keeping with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. Yet, many are worried it's not enough. This week, groups representing American police and fire chiefs, sheriffs, mayors and county leaders asked President Donald Trump in a letter to use the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to ensure they have enough protective gear. “We’re in war footing against an invisible enemy and we are on the verge of running out' of protective supplies, said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “We’ve got hospitals calling police departments, police departments calling each other, and it’s time to nationalize in terms of our response.” Police are accustomed to meeting staffing crunches by canceling vacations and leave, putting officers on 12-hour on, 12-hour off schedules and, when necessary, by shifting detectives and other specialized personnel to patrol. And officers are used to risk. It's part of the job. But at a time when Americans are being advised to stay six feet from each other to combat an insidious virus that can live on surfaces for days, the perils and anxieties are new. This crisis is unlike any American police forces have dealt with before, said former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis. “We're in unprecedented territory here,” said Davis, who led the police department when the Boston Marathon bombing happened in 2013. Streets are less crowded as people hunker in their homes. But police must prepare for the possibility of civil unrest among people who become anxious or unhappy about government orders or hospitals that get overrun with patients, he said. In New York, which has rapidly become the American epicenter of the pandemic, more than 500 NYPD personnel have come down with COVID-19, including 442 officers, and the department's head of counter-terrorism was hospitalized with symptoms. Two NYPD employees have died. On a single day this week, Friday, 4,111 uniformed officers called in sick, more than 10% of the force and more than three times the daily average. Leadership at America’s largest police department maintains that it’s continuing enforcement as usual. But they’ve also said that if the disease continues to affect manpower the NYPD could switch patrol hours, or pull officers from specialized units and other parts of the city to fill gaps -- steps also taken after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. For most people, the new coronavirus 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. But the U.S. is now leading the world in the number of confirmed cases; more than 100,000. Over 1,700 people have died in the country. And doctors say cases are nowhere near peaking. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, based in Washington, D.C., said police can't just go out of business. “They need to have ways so that if one person goes down, who’s going to back that person up, so departments are having to be innovative,” he said. In big cities and remote areas alike, officers are being told to issue tickets or summons rather than making arrests for minor crimes. More crime reports are being taken by phone or online. These steps to limit exposure come as police must beef up patrols in shuttered business districts and manage spikes in domestic violence. In Detroit, officials say many of those quarantined should return to duty soon. In the meantime, an assistant chief recently released from quarantine is heading up day-to-day operations while Chief James Craig is out. Many officers are also worried about whether they'll be able to draw workers compensation benefits if they get sick, since the coronavirus is not spelled out in the list of covered conditions. “No one really knows,” said Robert Jenkins, president of the Florida State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police union, which covers 22,000 officers. “Unfortunately, we have to be out there. We don’t have a choice.” While the pandemic has so far hit American cities hardest, rural law enforcement agencies with few staff are in some ways most vulnerable. In the tiny West Texas community of Marfa, Police Chief Estevan Marquez instructed his four officers not to pull over cars for minor traffic infractions, especially if they're passing through from areas already hit by the virus. He can't afford for anyone to get sick.
  • 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.”