Alanteo “Henry” Hutchinson worried his days were numbered after he tested positive this month for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
After all, the West Point city councilman knew several people who have died from the highly contagious illness, including a childhood friend. Hutchinson’s case began with fatigue, chills and a fever that drenched him in sweat. He and his girlfriend, Tameka Atkinson, who also tested positive, recently recovered.
“It was really scary,” said Hutchinson, 40, West Point’s mayor pro tem. “We didn’t know how we were going to come out of it.”
Hutchinson’s home sits on the Troup County side of West Point, one of several coronavirus disease hotspots in rural Georgia. This month, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has more than doubled to 863 in Troup, where 24 people have died from it. Georgia, meanwhile, is one of 20 states where the numbers of newly reported cases have grown over the last 14 days, according to a New York Times analysis.
As summer approaches and as Troup residents are seeking to return to their normal routines, local officials are scrambling to remind them the pandemic is still raging. Meanwhile, they are handing out free cloth masks.
“In a public space, I think everybody should be wearing a mask. I have been harping on that for the last few months,” West Point Mayor Steve Tramell said. “Bottom line, people are not taking precautions like they should.”
Trouble at the jail, nursing home
Largely rural, Troup County is home to about 70,000 people, a fifth of whom live in poverty. The county — named after Gov. George Troup — borders Alabama, which is also grappling with a spike in newly reported COVID-19 cases. The LaGrange metro area is experiencing the six highest growth of cases in the nation, based on its number of illnesses per 1,000 residents over the last two weeks, The Times reported.
More testing, according to local officials, and several other factors help account for this. The disease has spread through the LaGrange Health and Rehab nursing home, sickening 64 residents and 22 employees. Fourteen residents have died. The nursing home did not respond to a request for comment.
COVID-19 has torn through the Troup County Jail, afflicting 25 detainees and six jail employees. Authorities are checking the temperatures of everyone booked into the jail, screening employees before they report for duty, sanitizing the jail daily and isolating detainees who test positive for COVID-19, according to the Troup Sheriff’s Office.
About 10 miles southwest of the jail, the massive Kia Motors manufacturing plant has reported that 29 of its 2,700 employees have tested positive. One employee died of complications from COVID-19 last month. That person developed symptoms during a suspension in production at the plant and had not been there since mid-March, according to Kia. The automotive company said it is requiring face masks, has on-site testing and has set up “quick response disinfecting/sanitizing teams.”
Authorities, meanwhile, have also broken up large house parties in West Point and LaGrange since last month.
“These are parties going on around midnight and the neighbors called to complain about them,” LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said. “It’s very frustrating that people just seem to not be practicing any kind of social distancing.”
Troup Commission Chairman Patrick Crews recently learned of a gathering of about 300 people around midnight at a cabin on West Point Lake. A marina operator, he said, called the police.
“People are just kind of tired,” Crews said. “They are wanting to get out and see their friends and do things. And it is just not a good step right now.”
‘It is very much real’
The disease has taken a toll on Hutchinson’s family. A production supervisor at a company that assembles parts for Kia, he has been out of work for weeks because of his illness and is collecting unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, he has kept his distance from his children so he can shield them from COVID-19.
Hutchinson shared his story with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to raise awareness about the disease. He is urging people to stay away from large gatherings, wear masks in public and wash their hands.
“It is very much real,” he said. “This is not one of those things where you just hear about it on the news. It is actually in our community. We know people who have been affected by this and who have succumbed to it.”
David Simpson, 45, who operates a barbershop in LaGrange, also shared his COVID-19 survival story to emphasize the need for precautions. Starting in early March, he suffered from a fever and felt queasy. At a local hospital, he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and placed on a ventilator. Eventually, he was transferred to Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta and hooked up to a life support machine.
“I was so scared that he was going to die,” said his wife, Veronica, who had just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with him before he became ill. “I was praying and asking God to keep him here.”
During his ordeal, Simpson lost 60 pounds and much of his strength. He also suffered kidney damage. His recovery has required physical therapy and dialysis. The Simpsons have been out of work for weeks because of his illness, so family and friends are supporting the couple with donations.
Simpson credits his survival to his Christian faith, his wife’s vigilance and the doctors and nurses who cared for him. His message to the public is simple: Wear a mask.
“You are protecting yourself,” he said, “and you are protecting people in general.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.