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

The coronavirus outbreak has now claimed 10 lives in Georgia, state officials said Thursday, and the number of confirmed cases increased by nearly half since Wednesday, an ominous sign of the pandemic’s worsening toll.

In its daily online update, the state Department of Public Health did not identify the counties in which the latest deaths occurred. A spokeswoman for the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A southwest Georgia hospital said Thursday it has confirmed that four patients died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, all this week. Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany is treating another 19 patients with confirmed cases of coronavius. Overall in the Albany area, 425 people are waiting for test results, most self-quarantined at home.

Authorities in Albany are investigating two additional deaths they suspect are related to the virus.

In Atlanta, Emory Healthcare said a patient with a confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, died Wednesday. Emory Healthcare did not say at which of its 10 hospitals the patient died.

Across Georgia, 287 people have confirmed cases of coronavirus. The death rate stands at 3.4 percent.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

With the number of confirmed cases rising in many Georgia counties, including among people hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms, the deaths in Albany and Atlanta suggest the coronavirus may already have killed more people than state officials had previously acknowledged.

“People are dying – that’s how serious this is,” Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said at a news conference in Albany. “It is not a game.”

Before late Wednesday, the state Department of Public Health had confirmed only the death of a 67-year-old man in Cobb County on March 11.

» RELATED: Emory Healthcare patient dies from COVID-19

» MORE: As hospitals fight to keep up, they tell mild cases not to seek tests

The latest deaths occurred amid a deluge of bad economic news stemming from the virus’ outbreak.

Delta Air Lines cut 70 percent of its flights and announced more than 10,000 employees have volunteered to take unpaid leave. Shares in the Atlanta-based airline plunged by 25 percent Wednesday.

The Big Three automakers said they were suspending production at assembly plants.

The country’s largest owner of shopping malls — including Lenox Square, Phipps Plaza and the Mall of Georgia in metro Atlanta — said it would shut down until March 29.

And the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell below 20,000 points for the first time since January 2017.

Against that backdrop, the outbreak continued to disrupt the lives of millions of Georgians — including members of the state Senate.

» RELATED: Supply shortages force health systems to devise own workarounds

» MORE: As hospitals fight to keep up, they tell mild cases not to seek tests

Legislative leaders recommended that senators and their staffs self-quarantine after state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, tested positive for COVID-19. Beach took part in Monday’s special session to ratify Gov. Brian Kemp’s declaration of a public health emergency, even though he apparently exhibited symptoms as early as March 10.

Beach said he learned he had the virus after the special session adjourned.

Little information is available about the death at an Emory hospital. Dr. Jonathan S. Lewin, chief executive of Emory Healthcare, announced the death Wednesday in a message to employees.

“This is an incredibly sad day for the patient’s family, and we are all saddened by this news,” Lewin wrote. “We are unable to provide any more details due to patient confidentiality.”

He added that Emory is not likely to publicize any future deaths related to the coronavirus.

The deaths in Albany, a city of 75,000 about 200 miles south of Atlanta, underscore the shortcomings of the testing regimen used in Georgia and across the nation.

Phoebe Putney had to wait seven days for a private lab to confirm 23 suspected coronavirus cases. The results arrived Wednesday shortly after two of the patients died, said Ben Roberts, a spokesman for Phoebe Putney Health System.

Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, Georgia on Monday set up a tent for drive-through testing for COVID-19 and its virus, the novel coronavirus. Although test samples are being taken, Labcorp’s processing of the tests is several days behind. PHOTO courtesy of Phoebe Putney Health System.

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Results still aren’t in for about 300 other patients, including 69 who are hospitalized with severe symptoms, said Scott Steiner, Phoebe Putney’s chief executive.

State public health officials identified the patients who died as a 42-year-old woman and a 69-year-old woman, both of whom had chronic health issues before contracting the virus.

Fowler, the coroner, said another woman died at the hospital on Sunday. The same day, a woman in her 40s died at her home in Albany, while a man in his 70s died in a nursing home.

“They had all the symptoms” of COVID-19, Fowler said.

State public health officials had confirmed only seven coronavirus cases in Dougherty County, which includes Albany. They are among 197 confirmed cases statewide by Wednesday, 51 more than on Tuesday.

But officials in Albany have tracked multiple suspected cases to two funerals, one on Feb. 29, the other on March 7.

Many people from two churches attended one or both funerals, and the same funeral home handled each service, said Chris Cohilas, chairman of the Dougherty County Commission.

A eulogist at the March 7 service tested positive afterward, said Nathaniel Payne, owner and funeral director of M.L. King Memorial Chapel. That service took place at the funeral home, which has since been disinfected. But at the time, Payne said in an interview Wednesday, no one suspected the man was ill.

“We have followed all the guidelines,” Payne said. “We’ve done everything humanly possible to try to avoid the virus.”

Cohilas said the Albany outbreak may also be linked to Georgia’s first known COVID-19 death. The 67-year-old who died March 11 at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta attended the Feb. 29 funeral at Gethsemane Worship Center in Albany.

The man, who has not been publicly identified, tested positive for the coronavirus on March 7 and died four days later.

Southwest Georgia appears to have the largest concentration of coronavirus cases in the state, said Cohilas, and the spread of the virus through the two funerals demonstrates how difficult containing the outbreak will be.

“The numbers are going to go up,” Cohilas said. “They absolutely are going to go up. This disease can literally infect our community.”