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Gov. Kemp's comments on asymptomatic spread of coronavirus stir scrutiny

The governor referred to asymptomatic spread as a "game changer" that informed his decision to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order.

ATLANTA — During a press conference on Wednesday to announce a statewide shelter-in-place order, Gov. Brian Kemp said after holding off on a shutdown longer than most other governors, his thinking was motivated in part by a "game-changer" in our understanding of the novel coronavirus.

The governor described that game-changer as learning that "this virus is now transmitting before people see signs," an apparent reference to the asymptomatic spread of the coronavirus that has long been known.

RELATED: ‘Silent spreaders’ could be behind massive infections or second waves of COVID-19

In full, the governor said:

"I'm following the advice of (Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner) Dr. Toomey, and her and I both mentioned in our remarks, finding out that this virus is now transmitting before people see signs so - what we've been telling people from directives from the CDC for weeks now, that if you start feeling bad stay home, those individuals could have been infecting people before they ever felt bad," he said. "Well we didn't know that until the last 24 hours, and as Dr. Toomey told me, she goes, 'This is a game-changer for us.'"

Gov. Kemp also defended his delayed decision to impose a shelter-in-place order, saying the individual measures he has ordered over the last two weeks, such as "ordering every business to adhere to strict social distancing guidelines, shelter in place for the elderly (and) medically fragile and putting the ban on large gatherings," compared favorably to other states' formal stay-at-home orders.

Critics, such as state Rep. Scott Holcomb and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow have seized on the comments.

"Kemp’s admission reveals that he and his administration hadn’t been listening to the health officials, including members of the White House coronavirus task force, who have been sharing that information for months," a release by the Georgia Democrats on Thursday said.

CNN's Anderson Cooper and Atlanta resident Dr. Sanjay Gupta also discussed the governor's comments critically in a segment on Thursday. 

"If he just learned that then he is not paying attention and he is not doing his job," Cooper said.

The governor's defenders have countered that Kemp was referring to specific information about the breadth of asymptomatic COVID-19 spread and evolving CDC guidelines. In an interview with Atlanta NPR affiliate WABE this week, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said asymptomatic individuals might account for as many as 25 percent of all infections.

"That’s not all of what he said. In the speech and follow-up questions, he said that the CDC changed guidance yesterday on protocols involving asymptomatic/presymptomatic spread," the governor's communications director, Candice Broce, wrote in response to Holcomb on Twitter. "It’s been suspected for some time, but the protocols did not change until yesterday."

"Dr. Toomey explained this change in further detail, too. Moreover, both cited significant changes in modeling and hospital capacity needs as part of the rationale," she added.

Referring to other comments in the press conference, Kemp's press secretary Cody Hall sent 11Alive the following:

"First, I’d recommend you watch the entire briefing from yesterday, specifically the Q&A portion where the governor repeatedly refers back to the updated guidance from the CDC and various other factors that led to his decision.

Second, the Governor makes it very clear in the Q&A portion that the updated CDC guidance as of March 30th changed the Georgia Department of Health’s (DPH) recommendation to the Governor regarding more aggressive action. Dr. Toomey also addresses this in her statement and in her Q&A.

In short, updated modeling from IHME and the updated CDC guidance also leads to updated protocols within DPH regarding contact tracing, community mitigation, and testing for COVID-19. Both of those also have changed state planning for PPE needs, ventilators, and hospital bed capacity. Again, these are topics the Governor discusses at length in the press conference.

Third, the Governor also mentioned updated hospital bed capacity modeling, and the lack of adherence to the state’s current executive order (published March 23rd) as additional reasoning for the new shelter in place order."

Asked during the press conference if he should have instituted a shelter-in-place order sooner, Kemp himself said:

"I think what we had in place earlier was exactly what the healthcare professionals were telling us what to do ... when you look at the orders that I've put in place versus what other states did - you can call it whatever you want - but if the press would really dig in and compare they would see that what Georgia has in place is very strict compared to other states around the country."

11Alive is focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. We want to keep you informed about the latest developments while ensuring that we deliver confirmed, factual information.

We will track the most important coronavirus elements relating to Georgia on this page. Refresh often for new information.

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