3 Albany Deaths May Be Linked To Coronavirus

Personnel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta are shown in February working at the Emergency Operations Center in response to the coronavirus. A new investigation is looking into the recent deaths of three southwest Georgia residents. Their deaths may have been caused by the coronavirus. Tests are being run in those cases by the GBI medical examiner’s office.

John AMis / Associated Press file

The recent deaths of three southwest Georgia residents are being investigated as possibly having been caused by the coronavirus.

The Dougherty County coroner, Michael Fowler, said Tuesday that the deaths of the three people “are suspicious’’ and that tests are being run in those cases by the GBI medical examiner’s office.

The deaths, all in Albany, were of two people in their 40s and one person in the 70s, Fowler told GHN. One person died at home, one in a nursing home and one in a hospital, he said. He did not identify the facilities, and the local hospital, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, did not give information about a recent death there.

The Dougherty weekend deaths were first reported by the Albany Herald.

Phoebe Putney now has six coronavirus patients, and dozens of possibly infected individuals are hospitalized there, awaiting test results.

Those numbers would mean that Albany is a major center – if not the biggest hot spot – of COVID-19 in Georgia. (Here’s a GHN article on the Phoebe cases.)

Public Health reported that there were 146 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the state as of noon Tuesday.

Fowler, the coroner, told GHN that the three deceased individuals had high fever, coughing and respiratory distress – the typical symptoms of coronavirus.

The Herald reported that one confirmed coronavirus death linked to the area is a person who visited for a funeral and later died in the Atlanta area. That person may have been the first Georgian to die from the disease, based on the Herald report.

The coronavirus spread in Albany was connected to two funerals in separate churches, said the Dougherty County Commission chairman, Chris Cohilas, at a Tuesday news conference.

Cohilas said the funerals, of Johnny Carter and Andrew Jerome Mitchell, were “heavily attended’’ from people belonging to Gethsemane Worship Center and New Direction Christian Church. Officials said there is also a possible connection to Martin Luther King Memorial Chapter, which provides funeral services.

The chapel, in a statement to WALB-TV, said it complies with all safety regulations.

‘I Believe It Will Get Worse’

The number of cases in the county is “going to absolutely go up,’’ Cohilas said.

Area residents with any connection to those churches and with coronavirus-like symptoms should call their physician or a Phoebe COVID hotline, Cohilas told reporters.

Fowler, the coroner, told GHN that the coronavirus situation “is more serious than people think. We’re trying to stay vigilant. I believe it will get worse.”

Phoebe Putney, perhaps more than any Georgia hospital, has been flooded with possible virus patients. Officials said they have been waiting for days for test results on 67 patients now in that hospital.

Five inpatients have already tested positive for COVID-19, and the lab result for a sixth patient came back positive on Tuesday, hospital spokesman Ben Roberts said. He added that 31 staff members, including doctors and nurses, are “self-isolating’’ at home, having experienced symptoms of coronavirus

Scores of local residents have been tested and are waiting for results while still in the community, said Phoebe Putney CEO Scott Steiner. He said many hospital patients have waited seven days for results.

Phoebe officials told GHN that they have been running low on personal protective equipment – masks, gowns, gloves, face shields, goggles and shoe covers – a need echoed by many hospitals in the state.

Steiner said Tuesday that Phoebe finally received some supplies, including from a national stockpile.

“We still need help with testing,’’ he said. “Public Health departments are significantly under-resourced. They don’t have testing supplies.

“We have people sewing masks,’’ he added. “Everybody’s talking about helping, and we hope that help comes soon.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said state officials have recognized the medical supply problem, and have ordered 100,000 masks, 10 pallets of medical face shields, 10,000 gloves, 25,000 gowns, 26,000 shoe covers, and 1,000 goggles from the national stockpile. “We’re going to continue to work on that shortage.

“Hospital bed space is a big concern,’’ Kemp added. He said testing centers would soon be available around the state, and that drive-through sites were already in operation.

There have been some reports of price gouging by retail outlets, Kemp said.

Social distancing is very important to curbing the spread of disease, the governor emphasized.

Cody Hall, a spokesman for Kemp, said Tuesday that state officials have been in touch with LabCorp about speeding delivery of test results.

The AJC reported Tuesday that three presumptive cases of coronavirus were reported at The Retreat at Canton, a 90-bed senior care facility in Cherokee County. The three are in the “presumptive” category because test results for the virus are positive but have not yet been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The positive tests are the first known at a senior care facility in Georgia.

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News