(The Center Square) – Applications to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have increased by 79 percent in less than a week in Georgia amid the COVID-19 outbreak, state officials said.

The health crisis, which has led to the social distancing requirements and shelter-in-place orders in places around the state, also has caused a spike in unemployment claims and fears over food security.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus.

The Georgia Department of Public Health on Friday afternoon reported 2,001 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, including 64 deaths.

Representatives for the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO), a solutions-based think tank focused on community building through public policy, said they expect the number of Georgians who depend on government assistance to continue to grow in the coming months.

“The health toll is the most severe, but the economic consequences are also deeply felt,” GCO president and CEO Randy Hicks said.

As of Thursday, the Georgia Division of Human Services received 54,259 SNAP applications over the past 13 days – 31,000 more than the agency received during the first two weeks of March. Applications rose by 8,000 last week and by another 15,000 this week. Nearly 35,000 new applications were submitted between Sunday and Thursday.

GCO said many of its partner organizations throughout the state have received a large number of calls and requests for public assistance.  

On March 18, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which allocates an additional $1.2 billion to federal food and nutrition programs. Gov. Brian Kemp directed Human Services to give Georgians who already depend on the program additional aid for two months.

Another $450 million for food banks is included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was approved by the U.S House on Friday after it passed the U.S. Senate on Wednesday.

One of the nation’s largest food bank operators, Feeding America, said the CARES Act does not do enough to help quell the food security needs of Americans. The organization has called on Congress to cut some of the red tape for food distribution and to expand SNAP.

“SNAP is not only vital to help families facing hunger but also is an economic multiplier, boosting the economy during times of crisis like this,” Feeding America representatives said.

GCO spokesman Corey Burres said long-term reforms need to be set in place to drive faster recovery.

“Obviously the longer our communities face financial hardship, the less money will be available for government interventions,” he said.

GCO believes lawmakers should avoid creating long-term benefits packages and should support organizations and services that help Georgians go back to work instead.

The CARES Act allows workers to receive unemployment benefits while staying connected to their employers.

GCO also recommends offering tax breaks to employers who offer paid leave to workers during the crisis.

Yet, Hicks said the most impact could come from community support.

“We believe that the most good will happen through our local communities, where neighbors help neighbors,” he said.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for four years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.