050520 Albany: Gov. Brian Kemp (right) wears a mask while touring the temporary medical pod that has been placed at the Phoebe North Campus of Phoebe Putney Health System with their CEO Scott Steiner on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Albany. The pod at Phoebe North arrived on April 15 and is scheduled to begin operations on Wednesday, May 6, housing 24 beds to treat non-critical COVID-19 patients. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton

In hard-hit Albany, Kemp warns of new outbreak in north Georgia

Albany – The rapid spread of coronavirus infections turned the area around Albany into one of the nation’s most startling epicenters of the disease. Gov. Brian Kemp visited Tuesday to celebrate efforts to contain the virus in southwest Georgia – and warn of another outbreak across the state. 

The governor toured a temporary medical pod that’s been stationed at Phoebe Putney Hospital since April 15, and said the response in Albany has fast become a template for how the state handles the disease elsewhere. 

“I want to thank the community and the community leaders for, as the chairman said, kicking the virus’ ass and flattening the curve,” said Kemp, referring to a remark by Dougherty County Commission Chair Chris Cohilas. “It has certainly kicked us, but I’m grateful for how hard people have worked to fight this invisible enemy.”

In late March, the city’s main hospital was so overwhelmed by sick patients from an outbreak traced to a funeral service that nurses were told to keep working even if they tested positive themselves. Hospital administrators turned to the underground market to find essential supplies. A local brewery started pumping out hand sanitizer.

In recent weeks, densely-populated metro Atlanta counties have surpassed Albany in confirmed coronavirus patients and the rate of infection in southwest Georgia has slowed. 

But Dougherty County and surrounding rural areas still lead the state, by far, in per capita cases. And local officials warn that the threat of the virus is still far from over. 

Well off the interstate some 180 miles south-southwest of Atlanta, Albany struggles with the coronavirus. The city’s Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital has tested the hospital like nothing else in its 110-year history. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

During his visit, Kemp said southwest Georgia has fought the disease “tooth and nail” and talked of hospitals “literally being almost out of protective equipment, people flying things in, the new techniques that the medical team worked through to give the best patient care possible.”

Among the lessons was establishing four mobile hospital sites around the state that provide extra bed capacity and can help relieve the strain if facility is damaged by a storm or devastated by a water main break. 

One of those hospital units is now being set up in Gainesville, the heart of Georgia’s prized poultry industry. At least 400 poultry workers have tested positive for the disease, and officials have scrambled to try to protect workers while aiming to prevent disruptions to the $41 billion industry. 

“It’s something that we’re probably going to need right now. They’re being stressed pretty hard up there at the moment. We’re doing a lot of things that we did here in Gainesville,” he told Dougherty County officials. “Because of what we learned going through this first, it has really better prepared us.”

The governor said contract medical staff have also been dispatched to the area around Gainesville, and that the mobile hospital could also take patients from Athens and other nearby cities if new outbreaks emerge.

“It’s an investment for sure,” he said. “We know that this isn’t going away anytime soon, so we’ll keep this facility stood up even if it’s not being used for the foreseeable future. So whatever happens in the fall, or until we get a vaccine, it will help us continue to be ready.” 

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