EDITOR’S NOTE: On Friday afternoon, Gov. Brian Kemp and Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, spoke to the Marietta Daily Journal via conference call to discuss the state’s response to the spread of the coronavirus. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the interview with Gov. Kemp and Dr. Toomey, go to the Marietta Daily Journal podcast at http://traffic.libsyn.com/mariettadailyjournalpodcast/kemp_mdj_-_32720_7.16_PM.mp3 or wherever you access your podcast now.
Q: What is the spread between how many Georgians are being tested daily for coronavirus and how many do you want to see tested?
Kemp: We would like to see testing continue to expand, which it is. If you follow our numbers, you can see that it’s going up drastically every day, especially from where we were just seven to 10 days ago. But there’s also a lot of other things that are coming online. We’ve got the 23 statewide (test) sites that Georgia Department of Public Health has up and running now, plus the work being done at the state lab. But there’s also hospital sites that are doing testing, other private sector people are doing testing. And there’s actually more of that coming and more that we’re working on.
Toomey: This is a good question because testing is such an important part of everyone’s knowledge of coronavirus. Right now we have our test site testing about 160 people a day. Those are the public health-run (sites), but our public health lab is running many more tests. And we have already done about 1,6(00), almost 1,700 tests at the Georgia Public Health laboratory. But as you recall, there are private labs that are also providing tests, not only to our public health sites, but also to private physicians. And we don’t know totally how many of those happen every day. But we know that at least to date, about 7,300 tests have been run by private labs. So there’s two processes going on, both within public health and outside public health. ... What’s the optimum number? I think the optimum number would ideally be to have individuals who are symptomatic be able to be tested. But given the limitation of test materials nationwide, not just in Georgia, we have to follow closely and adhere to the CDC guidance, which prioritizes those individuals to be tested. And those priorities include the elderly and (those) with symptoms, those with chronic health conditions with symptoms and certainly health care workers and first responders. And we, until we have a widespread availability of tests, will be focusing on those high-priority areas.
Kemp: One thing else I would just add, yesterday, we’ve had — it’s really amazing how much constant conversation and back and forth that we’ve been able to have with the president, with the vice president, the national coronavirus task force, all the folks that are on that, certainly with Dr. Fauci and Dr. (Deborah) Birx, and Dr. Birx was making the point yesterday ... she was talking about the new tests that are still coming out that’ll be on the market very quickly, a new type of swab. It’s easier, the individual can do that versus having the physician do it. The results are coming back (for) some of these tests in 15 to 45 minutes. So I mean that’s all good, but they’re just now being deployed. So we don’t know when we’ll see those (in) two or three days or another week or two. But that is coming.
Q: Governor, you mentioned the 23 statewide sites and hospitals, the (testing) locations. So how are we getting the tests to those locations? And how many more do we need to get to those folks so they can get tested?
Toomey: We purchase the test collection material and get those out to the sites through courier. We have just received 500 additional to be shared (at the) sites and so we have a constant order that we ask and are trying to update this fully. I know that the initial order that went out and Dr. (Janet) Memark (director of Cobb & Douglas Public Health) talked about, 30 test kits, was just the first tranche. We anticipate there being many, many, many more tranches of … collection materials to go out to the test sites. And this will be an ongoing process. … We are looking at a number of different partnerships. As recently as today we’re talking about a potential partnership with a pharmacy chain. We’re working internally with the university system to potentially expand testing. As all of that happens and unfolds over the next several weeks, we’ll have access to much, much more testing. ... But right now we purchase the swabs, which is the collection equipment, as it were, (for) those sites and send it out.
Q: Governor, and I would also like to ask this of Dr. Toomey: Is your family ordering takeout from restaurants during this pandemic and if so, where have you ordered from?
Kemp: Oh, absolutely. We’ve been doing a lot of cooking at the house, but we’ve also been ordering out a lot to support our local, hard-working Georgians that are really experiencing a very tough time right now. Most of that we’ve been doing from the Capitol. It’s been so late when I get home, the family’s already eaten, but I know Marty and the girls have ordered at the mansion from Blue Moon Pizza and Taqueria Del Sol. Here at the office we’re just finishing Chick-fil-A, one of the first companies to go all takeout. We’ve had the Varsity, Popeye’s, Grant Park Pizza.
Q: And Dr. Toomey, what about you?
Toomey: Listen, I’m embarrassed to tell you that — as a public health professional, I should be telling you I eat fruits and vegetables and only lean meats every day, but that’s not the case. I order takeout almost all the time, even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, just because my job is so time-consuming. ... Last night we got our dinner from Tuscany at the Table, which is a local Italian shop that also does take out. We do Taco Mac.
Q: Speaking of restaurants, I was hoping that you could answer what’s being done to assure patrons that the cook staff in restaurants are taking proper precautions from unintentionally sharing the virus.
Toomey: That’s a good question because we have a very close working relationship in public health with restaurants. We work directly with them through our inspection process, (and) we have developed guidance which is being updated to reflect the changing ordinances. We’ll be putting those up on our website as well as sharing them with the Georgia Restaurant Association. We work closely with them, (CEO) Karen Bremer and her team and they will also be distributing them. And part of that guidance is to ensure that staff at the restaurants are not ill when they come to work. That’s critical. So you know, whether you’re at a location where you still have sit down meals with social distancing or takeout, you need to ensure that those staff that are waiting on you are not themselves sick. And that’s part of our guidance that will soon be on the website probably by the close of business today and shared with the restaurant association.
Kemp: I would just elaborate on really what a great job I think our private sector companies have been doing, whether it’s restaurants or other establishments, to just put in, you know, more extensive cleaning. There’s great manufacturers in the state that have stepped up to support the cause, re-tooling to make the critical medical supplies we need. There was a great story in Athens the other day about one small company there that has ramped up using the Classic Center event space for a temporary manufacturing site. They had the spray equipment that people are now using to spray this Clorox-like chemical that is more of a spray versus a wipe-down-type thing. It’s almost like a fogger to kill bugs, except it does cleaning and there’s really been some amazing things that people are doing. ... This whole event, when you think (about) what we’re seeing as adults, but imagine our children, really their habits and lives will change, much like many of ours were on 9/11. ... You know, I was thinking about my kids, they unfortunately may not hug and shake hands like we did a year ago or three months ago after this.
Q: Moving on to ventilators, which has been talked about a lot: What’s the spread between how many ventilators Georgia’s health system has, how many we need and what are you doing to ensure the number is met?
Kemp: We talk about ventilators at least twice a day. … We literally talk about the supplies, not just ventilators, (but) the (personal protective equipment), bed space for potential hospital surges, just anything you can imagine, we’re talking about that on calls twice a day and many times all in-between. … We’re in good shape with ventilators today, we’re going to be in good shape tomorrow. You know what that looks like in a week or two weeks, we don’t know. We have standing orders for ventilators. The problem is every governor in the country and … 159 other countries are looking for ventilators too, so whether we get a ship date on that or not, we don’t know. I spoke to the president and the vice president about this on our call with all the governors earlier this week about that. … Ford, GM, other people are retooling to build more ventilators. There are some in the strategic national stockpile. So we’re continuing to work on that. We actually had some really good news this morning from our call. The National Guard, believe it or not, has some ventilators. They converted those per CDC guidelines to work to meet the needs of specifically the COVID-19 patients. I can’t remember the exact number but I think it was between five and 10. So that’s five or 10 more that we didn’t have available last night that we have available this morning. We’ve shipped quite a few of those down to Albany to help with their situation down there. … To answer the question of what the spread is, you know, that’s the … $24 million question … And that’s really why we need the public’s help. If the public helps us, if they practice social distancing, if they don’t attend and don’t have large events ... if people will simply use good hygiene practices, keep surfaces wiped down, if employers that are still up and running will make sure that their employees know all these things and know not to show up somewhere if they’re sick or if they’re symptomatic, then the number of ventilators that we’re going to need is going to be much less than many people have predicted. … We’re trying to flatten the curve — it got flattened in China. And if we can do that, then all these doomsday scenarios that you see out there never occur. Depending on some of the doomsday data that’s out there, we’re in a really good spot right now, but we’re not taking that for granted. You know, you don’t ever know when a super spreader is going to pop up and you have another hot spot. … We’re not getting allotments like we would like to have because 50% of the cases in the United States of America are in six counties right now, which is really hard to believe. Six counties in the United States. There’s four in New York, one in Illinois and one in Washington. They have 50% of the cases. And you can imagine that is where the ventilators are going.
Q: Governor, some have said the state hasn’t done enough to curb the virus’s spread, while others say the state has gone too far, how can you reconcile these contrasting viewpoints?
Kemp: I believe if the press did an in-depth story on what states are really doing and what decisions and orders are out there that really make a difference, they would see that in Georgia, the orders that I took Monday, to shelter in place, elderly Georgians who are most susceptible to the coronavirus as well as the medically fragile, those that have respiratory-type illnesses, heart disease and other things (who) are susceptible to the virus and make sure that those people stay at home and they’re taken care of and they never end up in the hospital and don’t need a respirator. Limiting large social gatherings, mandatory social gathering distances for basically anybody, any business that’s open, they have to abide by those practices unless they’re kind of an essential industry if you will, where that’s not possible but they’re making a product, they’re supplying a product that is absolutely a positive to respond to the public health crisis, then we’re doing more than any other country. I think when you look — and I’m not trying to criticize other governors or local communities — but a lot of the shelter-in-place orders that you’ve seen, they had so many exceptions or exemptions that it’s really not a shelter in place. And what I have put in does a lot more to target the specific problems that we have in our state from a statewide perspective. And that’s how I reconcile that. You know, trying to keep our economy going, trying to keep hard-working Georgians working ... following these guidelines, not be at risk of community spread and being part of the solution by continuing to be able to pay for their family’s medicine and keep roofs over their head and supply the goods and services that our general public needs, I think is the right place for us to be in right now. I continue to rely on the advice of Dr. Toomey, the members of the coronavirus task force that I’ve had set up since late February.
Q: The grocery store aisles are empty of necessities such as toilet paper. What can be done to prevent people from hoarding necessities?
Kemp: Well, I think one thing that could be done is that people would do as we ask them and remain calm. That’s an easy thing to say and a hard thing to do. I think the 24-hour news cycle that we’re in with especially national cable news talking about this literally 24/7 with a lot of hysteria … has just caused people to treat this like a two-month ice storm. I think the way to combat that from my perspective is for the retailers to do that by limiting the supply that someone can purchase. And also just good community campaigns with great newspapers like yourself telling people, look, the supply chains are open. We have no reason or no will to shut off the supply chain, the grocery stores and things that people must have every day, their food, energy and other things and that they don’t need to panic. … They can buy two or three or four days’ supply and leave some for the neighbors and the stores will be restocked. And I think you’re also seeing a lot of retailers that have been dealing with that issue, many of them are limiting their hours, not staying open all night anymore so they can restock the shelves, have an hour early in the morning where the elderly and more vulnerable populations can come in and shop by themselves. And you know, I certainly applaud our retailers and private sector folks for doing that.
Q: Governor, you’ve said there are “arrows left in the quiver.” What are they?
Kemp: Certainly a shelter in place that’s actually a full-blown lockdown is certainly an arrow that I have left in the quiver that I could use. I would say it would take something pretty extraordinary for me to go that far to do that. I don’t know that the people in our state want me to call the military out and lock people in our homes and I don’t think I’ll have to do that. I think our people ... in some counties may not have been paying attention to this issue or thought it wasn’t as big a deal as what we’re seeing in other counties. ... We’ve got 102 counties out of 159 that have one positive case. I think the awareness is starting to get out there. Certainly the statewide town hall, the number of press interviews that I continue to do and others are doing is raising awareness and people will pay attention and do the right thing and we can curb this virus and get on the back side of this.
Q: Dr. Toomey, a Wellstar Health System physician, Dr. Danny Branstetter, told the public this week that 80% of us will get the virus. Is 80% a reasonable number?
Toomey: I think a lot of that depends on how well we do at mitigating the spread. I’ve seen, I know the governor has also seen a number of projections that have been circulating and models that have shown at 20%, 40%, 60% spread. This virus is very transmissible, it’s more transmissible than the flu. So I think it’s not unreasonable to think that a large proportion of the public may become infected, but this is the situation where avoiding a large crowd, social distancing and hand washing, cleaning surfaces is going to make a difference. I think we have the capacity by following these guidelines of ensuring that that number is 20 to 40%, not 60 or 80%. I think a lot of that depends on how community and the public work together with us. What we hope is that we can minimize the spread … and ensure that our hospitals have the capacity to deal with this virus until the time we have a vaccine which is going to happen, we hope, in a year, year and a half (for) the next time this rolls around if indeed it becomes like influenza and it’s a seasonal virus. So I’m not sure how he made his estimates, there’s a lot of models out there that are floating around with a whole range of options. … But the bottom line is ... what that answer will be is actually dependent on how the public responds to the guidance that the governor has given to the people of Georgia.
Kemp: I don’t know where Dr. Branstetter got his information either, I mean, there’s a lot of models out there. What I would tell people to do is to continue to look at the data that we’re looking at right now in this room that I’m sitting in. And 20.3% of the people that we’re testing are positives. So there’s — a little over 79% of the people that we’re testing are negative … You have probably one of the, if not the, best public health directors in the country with Dr. Toomey. … We’re following the data, the testing data that we have and also what we’re hearing that we know to be fact on the ground in our state so that we can respond to different hotspots, different issues that we may have no matter where they are in the state. And then you have others that are out there throwing out these models based on something that, you know, happened in China or something that happened in South Korea or something that happened in Italy. And unfortunately the public has not read as much as I have or Dr. Toomey has or members of the task force have that are literally living and breathing this 24/7 to try to make good decisions. Because when you look at China, you look at South Korea and look at Italy, you know, in many ways, the curves and the data are very helpful for us to model, but you’re also dealing with completely different circumstances in those countries versus what we’re dealing with right here in Georgia. And that’s why I continue to tell people to follow the information and advice that’s coming out of the governor’s office, Georgia Department of Public Health and from the CDC and the, you know, the task force at the federal level.