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Gov. Brian Kemp speaks as other officials standing behind during a press conference to provide an update on the state's efforts regarding COVID-19, after reporting the first death in Georgia related to coronavirus, at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's governor warned Saturday that COVID-19 infections are increasing in the state as he signed an emergency declaration unlocking sweeping powers to fight the disease threat.

Republican Brian Kemp said the number of cases caused by the new coronavirus rose to 66 Saturday from 42 on Friday, which he said was the largest numerical increase in a 24-hour-period since Georgia detected its first case.

"In Bartow, Cobb and DeKalb counties, the number of cases doubled overnight," Kemp said. "We have to remain vigilant, especially for our most vulnerable populations."

Kemp later announced by Twitter that Georgia now has permission to transfer 31 Georgia residents who were aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship to their homes. The Georgia residents were among hundreds of cruise ship passengers who were flown to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in suburban Atlanta this week after the ship was unloaded in California.

There are nearly 500 passengers at Dobbins and 1,500 more at bases in California and Texas as of Saturday, said Suzanne Sellman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She wrote in an email to The Associated Press that Georgia and some other states are allowing residents to return home to complete their quarantines, while some states are requiring a negative test or a completed quarantine period before residents can return home.

A 67-year-old man who died earlier this week at a Marietta hospital was the first Georgia fatality, and cases so far are concentrated in metro Atlanta and northwest Georgia. The governor said he was signing the emergency declaration in part because he fears a surge in cases that might overwhelm the state's hospitals.

"The capacity of our health care system remains at the forefront of my mind as we prepare for local transmission," Kemp said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

In the Saturday speech, the governor renewed his call for churches, synagogues and temples to join schools and others in preventing public gatherings.

"We have called on faith-based organizations to consider cancellation of services to mitigate the risk of transmission," Kemp said.

Kemp's remarks were broadcast, but reporters were not allowed to come to his office, yet another example of the social distancing that he's advocating for Georgians.

Already, school districts covering about 1.3 million of Georgia's 1.8 million public school students have announced closures. Most are closed for at least two weeks beginning Monday, with hopes of teaching online. All districts in metro Atlanta are closed, although school systems in some other parts of the state including Augusta and Columbus remain open.

Public and private universities are also closing, with plans to stay shut for at least two weeks or shift all instruction online for the remainder of the semester.

Among many events postponed or canceled are the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament in Atlanta, Savannah's St. Patrick's Day parade and the Masters golf tournament in Augusta.

The General Assembly put its regular session on pause Friday, but Kemp's declaration of a public health emergency automatically triggers a call for a special session of the Georgia General Assembly to be held Monday in order to ratify the action. Both House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan voiced support for the action Friday.

The law gives Kemp the ability to suspend laws and regulations, commandeer private property, take over health care facilities or direct them to provide services, offer temporary housing and welfare payments, and take money directly from the state treasury without legislative authorization to pay for the government's actions.

Kemp said the state Public Health Department was currently performing 100 tests a day, with plans to ramp up capacity to 200 tests a day by the end of next week. He also said independent test sites would be set up next week in various parts of the state.

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