South Georgia community among nation’s hot spots for COVID-19

Albany is unlikely epicenter of coronavirus in southeastern United States

Albany's Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital has seen an influx of coronavirus patients. (CNN)

ALBANY, Ga. – Southwest Georgia continues to suffer at a far greater rate than the state or nation as a whole after coronavirus spread among well-wishers at funerals in Albany, the Dougherty County seat.

As of Saturday evening, Dougherty County has suffered 17 deaths -- the most of any county in Georgia -- and 224 confirmed COVID-19 infections. Fulton County -- the center of the Atlanta metropolitan area with a population 11 times greater -- reported 12 deaths and 378 infections.

The percentage of cases in Dougherty County is also higher than Florida’s coronavirus epicenter -- Broward/Miami-Dade counties -- and the Seattle, Washington, area where the disease made its first major mark in the United States just over a month ago.

Comparison of COVID-19 hot spots around America

Cases and deaths per 1,000 population based on state/city health department data as of midday Saturday

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough cautioned Friday that waits of up to 10 days for coronavirus test results means the actual number of infections in his community is likely much higher -- he estimated local cases could top 500. The city and Dougherty County have imposed strict ordinances, ordering many businesses to close and residents to stay home as much as possible. Officials said they’re painfully aware of the economic suffering that’s resulted from their efforts to protect lives.

“How hard is it? Our decision is bankrupting people every day,” Chris Cohilas, Dougherty County’s elected chairman, told a news conference Friday. “... We have a responsibility to act no matter what the governor chooses to do or not to do.”

Because testing remains limited as the outbreak grows exponentially, many people moving around their communities may not know they’ve inhaled the virus until well after they’ve infected others. Particularly risky are places where people who aren’t isolating.

Most infected people experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, but a fraction of people suffering more severe illnesses that can require respirators to survive. As the caseload grows rapidly, hospitals are bracing for a coming wave of patients.

With every intensive-care bed occupied at Albany’s Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, administrators have been scrambling to find more health care workers to run a sister facility across town. On Friday, the Georgia National Guard announced it had dispatched teams with 22 total members — including a doctor, two physician assistants, four nurses and 13 military medics — to assist the Albany hospital’s staff.

The death toll now includes a 49-year-old inmate from nearby Lee State Prison who tested positive for COVID-19 and died Thursday while hospitalized in Albany, the Georgia Department of Corrections said. Five other inmates and four staff members at the same prison also were infected; three were hospitalized while the others recover in isolation, the agency said.

Local officials have been taking action since the Georgia Municipal Association advised all 538 cities in the state to order curfews from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and close gyms, movie theaters and other businesses. New emergency ordinances in Cartersville and surrounding Bartow County took effect Friday, with violations punishable by $1,000 fines and up to two months in jail.