City under siege: Coronavirus exacts heavy toll in Albany

Friday, March 27, 2020 @ 8:00 AM

A rapidly growing rate of coronavirus infections has Albany under siege. Its main hospital is so overrun with sick and dying patients that nurses at one point had been told to keep working even if they tested positive themselves, and the administration turned to the underground market to try to find essential supplies.

The CDC and the state Department of Public Health have sent experts to investigate the catastrophic spread of the disease. Most non-essential local businesses have been disrupted or shuttered altogether. A downtown micro-brewery has converted half of its brew tanks into a hand sanitizer production line. The local Procter & Gamble paper plant is working to pump out enough Charmin toilet paper and Bounty paper towels to help supply products that have disappeared from store shelves across the state.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Yet public officials fear the gravity of the crisis hasn’t sunk in for many residents in this Dougherty County city or nearby southwest Georgia communities. Big family cookouts went on last weekend. Some churches gathered for services as usual. Young people took part in pickup athletic games. Others stood in line together at food trucks.

Then Thursday, Mayor Bo Dorough struck a somber tone in the city’s daily Facebook Live briefing as he announced a new threshold had been crossed. Two first responders had fallen seriously ill from the virus, joining the ranks of sick health care professionals, public safety employees and drivers with the local transit system.

“It’s been a difficult day so far,” Dorough said. “We knew this was going to happen. These are people who are ill because they are serving the public.”

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Health officials say the crisis in Albany should be considered a harbinger of things to come for other Georgia cities, small towns and rural areas. While the country focuses on the human toll from the pandemic in metropolitan areas such as New York, Seattle and New Orleans, this city of 75,000 tucked in Georgia’s black belt agricultural region stands as a stark reminder that no community, no matter how small or off the beaten path, is immune once the virus takes hold.

Albany’s closest interstate is I-75, some 40 miles to the east. And the local regional airport gets just a few Delta Connection flights from Atlanta each day.

But Dougherty County still finds itself, for now, with the state’s highest concentration per capita of patients known to be infected with COVID-19.

Thursday and Friday, the state sent two National Guard medical support teams to help.

“The problem is we just got it earlier than everybody else,” said Scott Steiner, chief executive officer of Phoebe Putney Health System. “I hope I’m wrong, but I think this is coming to the rest of Georgia.”

» RELATED: As virus spreads, a growing fear of overwhelmed hospitals

» MORE: No timetable for widespread virus testing amid ongoing test scarcity

As the area’s lone hospital network, Phoebe Putney is at the center of the coronavirus storm. The sudden deluge of critically ill patients quickly overwhelmed Albany’s main hospital.

Late Monday night, the medical staff at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital faced a fresh dilemma in the crisis that has tested the institution like no other in its 110-year history. Several patients were rapidly deteriorating in one of the hospital’s coronavirus wings, yet they couldn’t be transferred into intensive care because the unit was nearly full.

Shortly before midnight the hospital’s chief medical officer, Steven Kitchen, was called in. Quick decisions had to be made on which intensive care patients had recovered enough to be moved out.

“We marshaled all of our resources,” Dr. Kitchen said. “We were able to free up some beds, move a couple patients out of the ICU, and were able to meet the patient care needs at that point.”

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Then on Wednesday the hospital announced that all 38 of its intensive care beds for coronavirus patients were full. The following day, after five other hospitals agreed to take transfers, Phoebe had one bed open, and just four ICU beds available for other types of patients.

So far, health authorities have counted 29 deaths from the virus in the area: 18 in Dougherty County and 11 in surrounding communities, including Lee, Terrell, Baker, Mitchell and Early counties.

The Dougherty County coroner says he’s waiting for test results on 10 more people suspected to have died from COVID-19.

As of Saturday, the Phoebe Putney health system had 357 patients across its four hospitals who’ve tested positive, but close to 1,600 test results were still pending.

As the medical community works to save lives of those infected, government leaders have worked to try to build a firebreak against the virus.

Photo: Special

In one part of that effort, Dorough in conjunction with Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas issued one of the most restrictive shelter-in-place orders in Georgia, including strict limits on what are deemed non-essential businesses. Officials in Albany are also trying to get leaders in surrounding communities to step up restrictions.

“The virus doesn’t know any boundaries in the sand,” Dorough said. “This is not an Albany problem. This is a southwest Georgia problem.”

Early warnings

Nearly 60 years ago, the world’s attention was drawn to Albany as the local black community struggled for equality under the law. On the southside of downtown, the Albany Civil Rights Institute tells that story. The adjacent Old Mt. Zion Baptist Church is the site where Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken and where crowds sang freedom songs.

About 10 blocks south of the old church sits the Martin Luther King Memorial Chapel, one of the city’s largest predominantly African American funeral homes. The past few weeks have been difficult for the home and its owner, Nathaniel Payne, who has been a fixture in the community for decades.

» RELATED: Albany becomes unlikely coronavirus hot spot in Georgia

» MORE: Increase in deaths, confirmed cases show virus’ toll is worsening

Health officials haven’t said how the pandemic reached Albany so quickly, and the mayor says that is a question for a later day. But the earliest cases trace back to two funerals handled by Payne’s funeral home, demonstrating the danger of large gatherings where the virus can quickly and silently gain a foothold.

Steiner, the Phoebe Putney CEO, estimated that the first 20 patients to reach the hospital were somehow connected to those services — one on Feb. 29, the other a week later. Among the infected are two of Payne’s employees who had to be hospitalized.

“It’s taken its toll, not knowing where it is, what it is,” Payne said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

When mourners came together for the first of the funerals, the coronavirus still seemed like a crisis happening far away.

At the time, Georgia hadn’t reported a positive case yet. The first U.S. death had just happened in Seattle. The day before, President Trump had called concerns over U.S. preparedness a Democratic hoax.

Photo: Special

The service was for 64-year-old Andrew J. Mitchell, an Albany native who worked in custodial services and who died from what his family believes was heart failure. Mitchell came from a large family, and on Feb. 28 as many as 100 people came by the funeral home for visitation. The next day, seven of his siblings attended the funeral, along with dozens of his nieces, nephews, cousins and their own families. Some guests traveled in from as far away as Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. They greeted each other with tight handshakes, long embraces and kisses.

“The minister, he was shaking pretty much everybody’s hand, just giving the family comfort and condolences,” Mitchell’s niece Chiquita Coleman said. “The funeral home officiants, they were kind of doing the same thing. That’s kind of their job, to give comfort. So there was a lot of touching and hugging and hand-shaking.”

Afterward, chapel workers at the exit handed out memory cards. Later, there was a repast at Mitchell’s house and a gathering at the home of a sister.

In the days and weeks following, at least two dozen Mitchell family members fell sick with flu-like symptoms.

One of Mitchell’s nieces, Tonya Thomas, 51, died from COVID-19 on Friday after more than two weeks in critical condition at Piedmont Fayette Hospital. Two of his cousins are in intensive care at Phoebe Putney. Three of his sisters were hospitalized but have been discharged.

» RELATED: Hospitals grapple with delaying procedures amid coronavirus surge

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Mitchell’s younger brother, Horace, returned to Baton Rouge and came down with a low-grade fever, nausea, cough and a loss of appetite. He went to a drive-through testing center and several days later learned he had the coronavirus. After going five days without a fever, he returned to work as a neurosurgeon on Tuesday.

“It’s brutal,” Horace Mitchell said. “You’re going home to lay to rest a family member, and then you have all this stuff, all this aftermath that happens after that.”

Photo: Special

A 67-year-old man who traveled from the Atlanta area for the service later died at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta. His death, on March 11, was Georgia’s first from coronavirus.

Izell Williams Jr., the pastor who delivered Mitchell’s eulogy, also fell ill. On March 22, Williams died from the coronavirus. He was 58.

‘An invisible thing’

Albany has had to deal with other disasters over the years, including floods in 1994 and 1998, a pair of tornadoes, just weeks apart, in 2017 that killed several residents, and Hurricane Michael in 2018, which knocked out power for weeks.

They had no preparation for a disaster like the coronavirus, besieging the nation before the speed and scale of the threat was recognized.

“A storm or a hurricane, you can see the devastation,” said Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler, whose office is straining to keep up with cases. “Here you can’t see nothing. It’s an invisible thing. You can’t see the disaster.”

When reports of the virus first came out of China late last year, Phoebe CEO Steiner said the hospital tried to prepare by building up a six-month store of supplies. The hospital burned through that stockpile in seven days when the virus hit, he said.

“What we were not prepared for — the sheer numbers,” Steiner said.

The hospital then turned to desperate measures to get more supplies, particularly equipment to protect doctors and nurses from the infection.

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sellers lit up the hospital’s phone lines offering personal protective equipment — at a price.

Phoebe agreed to pay one supplier about $3.5 million for N95 protective masks. Masks normally cost the hospital 58 cents each. Phobe is paying $7 per mask. It paid more than $300,000 for a shipment of 240,000 protective gowns, which turned out to be dust gowns that won’t stop body fluids from seeping through.

“It’s a chance we took, right? Because we are desperate to protect our staff, and now we’re back on the phone,” Steiner said.

Finally, on Thursday the state gave the hospital eight palettes each stacked 6 feet high with personal protective equipment.

Still, Phoebe is straining to care for additional patients as they come in. With every bed in all three of its intensive care units filled, it has turned to hospitals in Columbus, Macon, Tifton, Valdosta and Warner Robins to take transfers. Meanwhile, Phoebe is working to set up overflow units at a mostly empty branch hospital about a mile and a half away.

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

To staff those units, Steiner said he’ll need about 50-75 more nurses, along with more nurse assistants, respiratory therapists and doctors. He has turned to the governor’s office and the Department of Public Health to find those workers. 

Phoebe still needs workers to backfill for ill staffers. So far, at least 18 have tested positive for COVID-19. Unable to find replacements to help deal with the crisis, Steiner had told hospital workers to report for duty even if they tested positive, as long as they were symptom free. He said he was acting under CDC and state Public Health guidelines. 

On Tuesday, though, new directives forced him to reverse. He said COVID-positive workers are now required to self-quarantine for one week. 

The National Guard late last week supplied four additional nurses, 13 medics, a doctor, two physician assistants, a medical supply specialist and 22 other support staff.

Dr. Charles Ruis, director of the Southwest Health District that includes Albany, said it was a stroke of bad luck that the city was hit so hard. Other cities shouldn’t count on good luck to spare them.

“The message to the rest of the state is, learn all you can from places like Bartow County and Dougherty County and Fulton and others, and understand that making a sacrifice in lifestyle now can pay huge dividends when it comes to life loss in the future,” Ruis said. “When the community gets so sick with COVID-19 that the hospital can barely keep up, then everybody is at risk.”