Over 400 doctors and nurses signed an open letter calling on Gov. Brian Kemp to issue a mandatory statewide shelter-in-place order to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are writing to you as doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who treat the people of Georgia,” the letter opens. “... The time has passed for voluntary measures. Too many people are still congregating in businesses and neighborhoods with little regard for the risk they pose to others and to our health care system.”

Those signing the letter contend the severity of the disease warrants stronger prevention measures than the state has taken to date.

On Monday, Kemp issued an emergency order that closed bars and nightclubs and required those particularly susceptible to disease to self-quarantine.

“Georgia hospitals have fewer than 24,000 beds, with about 2,700 in (intensive care units) — if they were all empty and available. If one in 100 of the 10.5 million people in Georgia get coronavirus, a conservative estimate based on worldwide observations, about 20 percent of them will need hospital admission,” signers state in the letter. “That means an influx of 21,040 ill people into our hospitals.”

Applying the same calculation to the populations of Camden and Glynn counties — cumulatively a little over 130,000 as of the 2010 census — would yield 260.

The Southeast Georgia Health System’s hospitals in Brunswick and St. Marys are equipped with 24 and five ICUs respectively. Other rooms could be equipped to bring the total number of suitable rooms to 50 if necessary, according to hospital officials.

Among the symptoms of COVID-19 is severe respiratory problems. Some patients would need ventilators to help fight the illness.

The health system has 30 and some surgery equipment that can be used for COVID-19 patients.

After a review of the letter, Southeast Georgia Health System CEO Michael Scherneck said he did not think any of the medical professionals that signed the letter to the governor worked for the health system.

“We have performed a cursory review of the signatories to the letter and do not recognize any as health system team members,” Scherneck said. “It appears that the majority of those signing are from the Athens and Atlanta areas.”

In previous interviews with The News, hospital officials said the best way to avoid overloading the health care system is for everyone to practice social distancing, or keeping a six-foot distance from other people and avoiding physical contact, and good hygiene.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends regularly washing hands with soap and water and using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if necessary, avoiding touching the face, cleaning frequently-touched surfaces, covering coughs and sneezes, immediately throwing away used tissues and staying home if one feels sick.

While some health care workers may believe a shelter-in-place order is the right move, elected officials aren’t so sure.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms issued a shelter-in-place order for the city earlier this week. During a Thursday televised town hall, Kemp said he did not plan to issue a statewide order and to instead leave the decision with local governments.

“Atlanta is different from Dublin, from Homerville,” Kemp said.

Before the town hall, state Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said social distancing appears to be slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Georgia.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-1, has been following the progress of the virus and the reaction of authorities.

“I watched the governor’s town hall (on Thursday) and I thought he answered the question well,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-1. “He has answered that question a couple of times. He’s trying to push it down to the local level, and I agree that that’s probably the best approach.

“What’s good for Atlanta is not necessarily what’s good for Brunswick.”

City of Brunswick and Glynn County commissions have taken their own measures over the last two weeks, shutting down many businesses and public and advising residents to follow social distancing practices in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Carter understands the need to take more harsh measures in other parts of the country that have been hard hit, like New York City. The city’s health department reported over 25,000 cases of COVID-19 and 366 deaths as of 8:30 a.m. Friday.

Georgia does not need to go that far, he said.

“There are other states that have not shown much problem at all with this so why would you want a blanket policy?” Carter said.

State Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, had a similar opinion.

“This is a difficult and strange time for Georgians and our entire country,” Jones said. “The COVID-19 pandemic and how we respond is all new territory. I continue to support Gov. Kemp’s decision to allow local control over each community’s shelter-in-place and quarantine directives.”

As of Thursday, there were approximately 50 counties in Georgia with no reported cases, including Brantley, McIntosh and Wayne, which Jones said supports the idea that local governments can handle the situations on the ground best.

“The governor and his medical advisors continue to evaluate the local control directive and continue to be confident, as much as any of us can be confident in this uncharted territory, that this is the right decision for Georgia,” Jones said.

Rather than evaluate the situation from a state level, Scherneck said the hospital appreciates what the Glynn and Camden county commissions and the Brunswick City Commission have done “to protect the members of our community as well as visitors to our area.”

“Each region throughout the state and the nation has been impacted by COVID-19 to varying degrees,” Scherneck said. “We respect and support the steps that have been taken by our local governing bodies and also are grateful for the ongoing dialogue that they have had with representatives at the state level as well as with our health system as they deliberate these issues.”

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