Coronavirus pandemic hits Southwest Georgia county hard

Randolph has highest county infection rate in Georgia

The Rev. Freddie Starling is recovering at home in Cuthbert under the watchful eyes of his family after surviving a harrowing battle with the novel coronavirus.

At the same time, the 78-year-old former school bus driver is mourning the loss of his younger brother, Alfred Starling, 65, a fellow Christian minister. Alfred died April 3 after being diagnosed with the disease along with pneumonia, friends and family members said.

“Uncle Al was a true man of God, dedicated to his family and a pillar of his community,” said his niece, Vatisha Prophet, 40, of Fairburn. “He will be greatly missed by all that knew him.”

The Starling brothers were among 126 people who tested positive for COVID-19 in Randolph County as of Tuesday morning, state Department of Public Health figures show. That gives the Southwest Georgia community the unfortunate distinction of having the highest rate of infections per 100,000 residents among counties in the state.

A big reason for that: Forty-seven cases have been confirmed at the Joe-Anne Burgin Nursing Home, a county-owned facility in Cuthbert. Six Randolph residents have died, including four at the nursing home. Among the dead are four women and two men in their 60s and 70s, four of whom had underlying health problems.

Randolph Coroner Rusty Chapman suspects the number of dead is higher in his county, a largely rural community that is home to about 6,700 people, nearly a third of whom live in poverty. He underscored how emotionally challenging it is for families to limit the sizes of their funerals as required amid the pandemic.

“It is a hard pill to swallow when you have a loved one and everybody wants to pay their respects,” Chapman said. “These are unprecedented times.”

Last month, the Randolph Board of Commissioners joined the cities of Cuthbert and Shellman in declaring a state of emergency, banning public gatherings of more than 10 people, shuttering bars and restricting restaurants. The county is urging its residents to follow state and federal guidelines for stopping the spread of the disease.

“When I go out in the public, I have my mask on. I have gloves. I am constantly washing my hands,” Randolph Commission Chairman Wesley Williams said. “We had a meeting this morning and we did it by teleconference. We didn’t come in contact with anyone.”

The pandemic, meanwhile, has strained the region’s health care system and economy, Cuthbert Mayor Steve Whatley said. His own business, Whatley Oil and Auto Parts Co., has lost about half of its gasoline sales amid the public health crisis.

“We are adhering to the governor’s (shelter-in-place) declaration and social distancing,” Whatley said. “It’s apparent when you come around our town. It is almost eerie with so few people moving around.”

Freddie Starling doesn’t know where he contracted his illness. A neighbor drove him to Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Cuthbert on April 3 after he started feeling weak and vomiting. Southwest referred him the next day to another hospital in Macon. He was isolated and treated before being discharged. The following day, he developed a fever of 103, so his son drove him back to the hospital in Macon in a church van. He finally returned home on Good Friday and is regaining strength. Remaining vigilant, his wife and children are routinely checking his temperature and monitoring his breathing.

“When you are dealing with trying to care for your loved ones and your parents or older individuals in your family, you just have to be prepared to take things into your own hands,” Prophet said.

Asked for his advice on overcoming COVID-19, Freddie said: “Take care of yourself at an early age. No smoking, no drinking. I’m not sleepy-headed, but I don’t let no sleep go to waste.”

His late brother, Alfred, served as a pastor at several local churches. An Andrew College graduate, Alfred is survived by his wife, four children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Like Freddie, Alfred drove a school bus for the county.

"For more than 20 years, Alfred was the first smile that greeted the students he safely transported from home to schools in the Randolph County School System of Cuthbert, GA," his obituary says. "Alfred loved his students, and they loved him."