Georgia’s COVID-19 deaths surge, and a rural county coroner reels

Two weeks ago, none of the 97 residents of the facility in southwest Georgia’s Mitchell County had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Then tests confirmed five cases, then seven, then eight and, now, 26 — as many as nine of whom died in the past few days.

The virus stalked the corridors of Pelham Parkway Nursing Home, quietly attacking the elderly and the frail.

Two weeks ago, none of the 97 residents of the facility in southwest Georgia's Mitchell County had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Then tests confirmed five cases, then seven, then eight and, now, 26 — as many as nine of whom died in the past few days.

“When they realized it, it had already hit,” Mitchell County Coroner Stedderick Thomas said Tuesday.

The deaths at Pelham Parkway reflect the rapidly mounting toll of the coronavirus pandemic across Georgia. The virus has hit the elderly and people with chronic illnesses especially hard, and it is leaving a disproportionately deadly wake in sparsely populated, rural areas such as Mitchell County, 200 miles south of Atlanta.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has been confirmed in all but four of Georgia’s 159 counties, and as the state has increased its testing capacity, the number of verified cases has surged. The state Department of Public Health said Tuesday evening that more than 9,000 Georgians have tested positive for the virus. That figure increased by about 1,500 between Monday and Tuesday. It more than doubled in a week.

More ominously, deaths are soaring, too. On Monday alone, officials confirmed 75 deaths statewide.

By Tuesday evening, another 57 people had died in Georgia, bringing the total to 348. Eight states have reported more deaths from the virus than Georgia.


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The rising death toll portends particularly bad news in the state’s senior-care facilities. Nursing home operator PruittHealth acknowledged late Tuesday that 10 residents of its Grandview facility in Athens died after testing positive for the coronavirus. The company, which said 12 of its Georgia facilities are under “code red” alerts because of coronavirus outbreaks, declined to disclose details about the deaths.

Dougherty County continues to lead the state, with 56 deaths reported by late Tuesday. Albany, the county seat, has by far the highest rate of deaths per 100,000 population of any metropolitan area in the country, The New York Times reported.

At least 42 more people have died in the six counties adjacent to Dougherty, according to state and local public health officials.

Mask-wearing Grady ambulance crews arrive at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. For the second day in a row, the number of deaths from the coronavirus in Georgia has risen sharply. With increased testing and rapid spread of the virus, numbers are expected to surge in the coming weeks. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

In much more populous metro Atlanta, 39 deaths have been reported in Fulton County, 29 in Cobb County, 13 in Gwinnett County, 11 in DeKalb County and 10 in Clayton County.

As the pandemic deepened, state officials announced that a pharmaceutical firm donated 200,000 doses of a medicine used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases to Georgia hospitals. President Donald Trump has aggressively promoted the drug, hydroxychloroquine sulfate, as a potential breakthrough treatment for COVID-19, but it has not been proved safe or effective in combating the coronavirus.

With no vaccine and no proven cure, public health officials say social distancing appears to be the most effective way to contain the virus’ spread. Georgia remains under a statewide shelter-at-home order, although loopholes allow residents to travel freely to numerous locations, from beaches and state parks to gun stores.

Grady Memorial Hospital medical personnel arrive for work on Tuesday, April 7, 2020, when for the second day in a row, the number of deaths from the coronavirus in Georgia rose sharply. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

“We won’t see immediate benefits of that,” Nancy Nydam, a spokeswoman for the state’s public health agency, said of the social distancing. “But over time we will — just as they have in other places where it’s been done effectively.”

At Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, 45 patients who appeared to have the coronavirus entered through the emergency room on Monday — down from a high of 73 in a day, but still the third-highest total since the outbreak began, said Scott Steiner, chief executive of Phoebe Health System, the hospital’s operator.

A sign is posted at the main entrance of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany on March 24, 2020. Well off the interstate some 180 miles south-southwest of Atlanta, Albany's struggles with the Coronavirus stick out like a sore thumb on the state's map. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“That tells us people in our community are still contracting the virus at a significant rate,” Steiner said at a briefing in Albany, “and we must be prepared to continue to meet substantial COVID-19 health care demands for quite some time to come.”

At Pelham Parkway in Mitchell County, coronavirus infections spread rapidly after the initial positive tests came back from the facility's owner, Archbold Memorial Hospital in Thomasville. By the time the Georgia National Guard deployed 20 troops to help sanitize the interior of Pelham Parkway and train the staff, the virus had already attacked.

However, Ashley Griffin, an Archbold spokeswoman, said, “We followed the state’s guidance on the care of residents in our facility.”

Griffin declined to say how many Pelham Parkway residents have died. According to Archbold’s website, 11 people have died across its network of four hospitals and three nursing homes in four southwest Georgia counties.

The Georgia National Guard was sent to help decontaminate Pelham Parkway Nursing Home, where at least 20 patients are known to have been infected with the coronavirus. Gov. Brian Kemp posted this photo on Twitter.

However, Thomas County, where Archbold is based, has reported only two coronavirus-related deaths. No one has died from the virus in Brooks or Grady counties, where Archbold also operates. The other nine deaths apparently occurred in Mitchell County, where Archbold operates a small hospital, Pelham Parkway and one other nursing home. No residents of the other nursing home have tested positive for the virus.

The deaths at Pelham Parkway account for most of the 12 that Mitchell County has recorded, said Thomas, the coroner.

The coronavirus is the deadliest disaster to strike the county in its modern history, Thomas said. The virus already claimed more lives than a tornado that hit early on Valentine’s Day 2000, killing 11 people in Mitchell and several others in nearby counties.

“I have seen nothing like this,” Thomas said. “And I don’t want to see nothing like this no more.”

Staff writers Brad Schrade, Greg Bluestein and Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.

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