Opinion: The calm before a pandemic storm in rural Georgia

Allen Fort, superintendent of the Taliaferro County school system and its only principal, chats with Kristie Callaway, a medical assistant at the health care clinic that operates through the school system. Jim Galloway/jim.galloway@ajc.com

Allen Fort, superintendent of the Taliaferro County school system and its only principal, chats with Kristie Callaway, a medical assistant at the health care clinic that operates through the school system. Jim Galloway/jim.galloway@ajc.com

One odd aspect about a pandemic in a time of tribalism is that finding a trustworthy source of information can be tricky.

On Friday, well ahead of Gov. Brian Kemp’s statewide directive, Taliaferro County School Superintendent Allen Fort ordered all local classrooms emptied.

Fort didn’t take his cue from the state Capitol, nor from the White House. He was persuaded to act by the world of sports. A day earlier, the NCAA had canceled its Final Four tournament in Atlanta, 100 miles to the west on I-20.

It was a decision reinforced the next morning by the announcement that the Masters tournament at Augusta National, 50-odd miles at the opposite end of I-20, had been postponed indefinitely.

If you don’t have any yourself, following the money is a natural instinct. “When these people are willing to give up billions of dollars of income – they don’t do that on a whim,” Fort said.

They are not panicking in Taliaferro County. Not yet. Because at long last, there is some advantage to be found in poverty and isolation, even if it’s only temporary. Taliaferro (pronounced “Toliver”) County has only one school, located on a road lined with more sagging framed houses than well-kept ones.

The school holds kindergartners, high school seniors and everyone in between. In all, 180 students and 23 teachers.

Fort is the school principal, as well as superintendent. “Friday afternoon, we brought all the kids out to the gym – the little kids, the middle school kids and the high school kids,” Fort explained. “And we said, ‘This is serious business, boys and girls.’ I told them, ‘This is not like a couple of snow days.’”

You can empty the classrooms and send students home, but you can’t close the school in a place like this. The building is a food distribution center in a county where 100% of students qualify for free lunches. The clinic in the pre-fab building next door is the only health care provider in the county. It operates under the auspices of the local school board and is about to become very important.

I had arrived on Monday afternoon. A parent was in the lobby, signing out the laptop that her child would use to keep in touch with a teacher. Home visits by faculty are a possibility, and a makeshift delivery system had just unloaded 360 meals for Monday and Tuesday, two at each child’s house.

”We did pretty good for the first day,” Fort said. “It went a whole lot better than we thought it would, because I have a lot of ladies that know a lot about these kids. They know everybody that’s around, and how to get to them.”

Taliaferro County has yet to see its first case of COVID-19, but the presence of the coronavirus has been felt. Two counties over, Hard Labor Creek State Park has now housed two infected but asymptomatic patients in a small village of campers created by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. State troopers patrol to make sure no one goes in or comes out.

Crawfordville is several exits away. “This is such a closed population. It’s not like so many of our kids travel around to be exposed by someone else. There’s only one place to stop off the interstate – a little gas station down there,” Fort said.

Taliaferro County itself has only 1,700 people. “The centers of our universe are Greensboro, Washington, and Thomson,” Fort said. Thomson is the largest – a bustling municipality of nearly 7,000 souls.

“If it gets to those places, that’s when we become really worried,” Fort said. That’s the path the virus is likely to take to his school.

It is possible to look at a map of where COVID-19 has landed in Georgia and presume that it's a phenomenon restricted to metro Atlanta. As of noon Tuesday, 33 cases had been diagnosed in Fulton County, 25 in Cobb, and 15 in DeKalb.

But then the eye wanders down to Albany and Dougherty County in southwest Georgia, where six cases have popped up. One patient has been diagnosed in Columbia County, near Augusta. Another in Gordon County north of Atlanta.

Everyone knows that the coronavirus is coming to rural Georgia. And when it does, the impact could be grim. Not just because health care in the hinterlands of Georgia is falling apart. We’ve known that for a good long time.

But the coronavirus is particularly dangerous for older people. And rural Georgia has more than its share. As thin as Taliaferro County’s population is, 25% are 65 and older – nearly double the rate (13%) in the state as a whole.

"The rural areas are definitely older, and in areas where the health care systems have absolutely taken a beating in the past decade," Charlie Hayslett would tell me the next day. His demographic-based website, "Trouble in God's Country," focuses on rural Georgia. "There's just no way that those factors won't combine to make for a more challenging situation in rural Georgia."

Back in Crawfordville, Fort himself is 67 and set to retire on April 30. It’s possible that when his students return to class, he will no longer be principal. Or superintendent.

We walked out to visit the clinic, which Fort had helped bring here, and is open to patients of all ages. This is where Taliaferro County will do battle with the coronavirus. It has a nurse practitioner on site each Tuesday and Thursday.

“I tell students that they can’t get sick on Mondays. They have to wait until Tuesday,” Fort said. It’s a joke that works better outside the clinic than inside. Kristie Callaway, a medical assistant, is there five days a week and can set up a telemedicine link with doctor or nurse practitioner on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Callaway pointed out the small room that had been designated as an isolation ward, just in case a patient is diagnosed with the virus on site. And that is possible.

The Taliaferro County clinic is one of 18 staffed by the non-profit Community Health Care Systems, Inc., all located in middle Georgia. On Tuesday, CEO Carla Belcher confirmed that the state had promised five coronavirus test kits for each of their clinics, including the one in Taliaferro County. When those tests might arrive is an open question.

“We’re ramped up and ready to take care of people during this pandemic,” she said. This was good to hear, and I wished Belcher and her people well. Because it’s not likely to be a fair fight.