Georgia officials concerned of impact protests could have on COVID-19 fight

State leaders and health officials say they are concerned what impact recent protests over the death of George Floyd will have on Georgia's efforts to fight COVID-19.

During a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp and Department of Public Health Director Dr. Kathleen Toomey, addressed the recent protests in Atlanta and across Georgia as well as the state's COVID-19 response.

Kemp said he respects the rights of peaceful protests, but said some are using this moment to riot, to loot, and to create an unsafe situation for residents.

"I realize people are hurting right now and there are more questions than answers," Kemp said, adding that Georgia is the cradle of the civil rights movement.

Kemp said the state is starting to see more patients return for additional coronavirus tests, but they are also seeing an increase in serious medical cases due to people being concerned about seeking medical attention due to the virus.

Dr. Toomey expressed concern over the number of people gathered in close proximity 

“When you have this many people gathered together in close proximity, you run the risk of viral transmission," Dr. Toomey said. "I think you add to that the fact that individuals have come from out-of-state where they may be, have even higher rates of infection and maybe bringing it into our state and transmitting it as well and so I think that we need to be very vigilant.”

As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, the state confirms just under 48,000 cases with a little more than 2,000 deaths in the state since the pandemic started. The big news is testing continues to rise with more than 560,000 total tests administers across the state.

The counties with highest number of cases continue to be in metro Atlanta with Fulton County topping 4,600 cases and more than 240 deaths with Gwinnett County following with 3,870 cases and 132 deaths. These two counties have also seen some of the largest protests over the last few days with fears a second spike might come from the large gatherings.

Demonstrations in Atlanta are entering a fifth night. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms extended a 9 p.m. curfew for the city. 

On Monday night, protesters were still in the streets of downtown Atlanta as the city’s curfew neared. Shortly before 9 p.m., police officers and the National Guard deployed tear gas. Protesters largely dispersed, though some remained, and officers made arrests, apparently on curfew violations. A similar scene had played out the night before.

A spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department said that as of 11 p.m. the department had made 95 arrests Monday. At least 52 of those arrests came before curfew went into effect, while others came after, according to Sergeant John Chafee.

Kemp declared a state of emergency late Friday and tweeted that up to 500 members of the National Guard would deploy immediately. Late Saturday, he expanded that order to include the entire state for a period extending through next weekend and said he’d authorized up to 3,000 National Guard troops to be deployed as needed to cities having protests.

Atlanta police have said 71 people were arrested Friday night and early Saturday morning, 157 people the following night, and 64 on Sunday night. The curfew in the city of Atlanta was extended for a third night to begin at 9 p.m. Monday and continue through sunrise Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.