A nurse checks a temperature of an employee before he enters the Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany on Tuesday, 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)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

As virus spreads, a growing fear of overwhelmed Georgia hospitals

An expected surge in coronavirus cases has public health officials increasingly worried that Georgia hospitals will be unable to treat everyone who becomes critically ill as the pandemic worsens. 

Already, intensive care units are full in hard-hit communities such as Cobb County and Albany, officials said Wednesday. The situation is so dire in Albany that Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital is scrambling to add as many as 60 critical-care beds in a satellite facility. 

Twelve people have died at Phoebe Putney from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The southwest Georgia hospital has admitted at least three dozen other patients who have tested positive. 

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia’s public health commissioner, emphasized the gravity of the looming hospital crisis while speaking Wednesday to about 500 pastors on a conference call with Gov. Brian Kemp. 

“We have concerns that the virus will spread at a very rapid rate and it will overwhelm hospitals,” Toomey told the pastors. Reporters for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution listened to Toomey’s remarks by dialing into a widely shared telephone number for the conference call. 


» COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA


Churches, Toomey said, may link many COVID-19 cases in “hot spots,” particularly in Albany, Cartersville and parts of Middle Georgia. 

“In virtually all these cases,” she said, “we have at least some cases because an individual (infected with the virus) attended large church services. And having individuals in crowds can expose them to the virus.” 

One cluster centers on the Church at Liberty Square in Cartersville. One church member died from COVID-19 last week, and a second, 78-year-old Harold Johnson Passmore of Gordon County, died Monday. 

Toomey and Kemp spoke to the pastors as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases statewide increased to 1,387 — up 26 percent since Tuesday. The increase reflects both additional testing capacity at state and private laboratories and the relentless spread of the virus. 

Almost two-thirds of Georgia’s 159 counties have reported positive diagnoses, the state Department of Public Health said. Georgia’s first two cases of the coronavirus were confirmed just three weeks ago. 

Late Wednesday, the public health agency attributed 47 deaths to the virus, nine more than on Tuesday. 

Among them was Ron Hill, 63, a coach and teacher at the Mount Vernon School in Sandy Springs, who died Wednesday. Mount Vernon School already had notified students and employees of the possible exposure to coronavirus, the head of the school, Brett Jacobsen, said in a statement. 

Authorities believe the death toll will rise significantly as more laboratory tests on deceased patients are completed. 

In Albany on Wednesday, Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said he is waiting on lab results in 11 additional deaths, beyond the 12 already confirmed at Phoebe Putney. 

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Georgia. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Of all Georgians with confirmed cases, almost 400 — or about one-third — are hospitalized. 

But hundreds of others are in hospitals across the state with COVID-19 symptoms, waiting for test results that often take a week or even longer to arrive. 

At Phoebe Putney, coronavirus patients occupy all 38 intensive care beds. The hospital’s chief executive, Scott Steiner, said he has asked other hospitals in the region to accept newly sickened patients while Phoebe Putney works to set up more critical care beds in a branch facility a mile and a half away. 

“Setting up a hospital doesn’t happen quickly,” Steiner said. “There’s no beds. There’s no pumps. There’s no personal protective equipment. So what we’re doing is we’re trying to hold the dam.” 

In Cobb County, officials are trying to contain the virus’ spread to avoid overburdening the county’s two hospitals. If the facilities exceed their capacity, “we cannot take care of all the people who become ill,” Dr. Janet Memarck, director of Cobb and Douglas Public Health, told the Cobb County Commission. 

The hospitals in Cobb have fewer than 50 ventilators on hand and no open intensive care beds, Memarck said. The virus has struck at least three Cobb County day care centers, she said, along with four nursing homes and several schools. 

“We have community spread,” Memarck said. “These cases are coming in randomly, and we don’t know where they’re coming from.” 


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

» ALSO | ‘Surreal’: Anxiety weighs on Georgians navigating coronavirus pandemic


Kemp has encouraged social distancing as a way to curb the coronavirus. However, he has avoided extreme measures such as closing most businesses or ordering Georgians to stay home.

On Monday, Kemp closed bars and nightclubs and limited public gatherings to fewer than 10 people without adequate social distancing. He issued a shelter-at-home order only for people who are medically fragile. 

Public health experts and some state and local officials have criticized Kemp for not taking stronger action. 

In the conference call with pastors, Kemp encouraged Georgians to stay home, even if they haven’t been ordered to do so. He asked pastors to comply with the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. 

Deacon Fred Johns presided over "Drive-In" Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Some 50-cars attended in the parking lot at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers. Adoration is offered every weekday (weather permitting) from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese and around the world have been implementing creative ways to serve the faithful. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC

“I didn’t want to shut all church services down,” he said. But he has authorized public health officials to close down any business — or church — that doesn’t practice social distancing. 

“We don’t want to have to get to that, but we will,” Kemp said. 

In a benediction, the Rev. Kenneth Walker of Atlanta prayed for Kemp, exalting his leadership through the coronavirus crisis. 

“This is our leader, Brian Kemp,” Walker said. “He didn’t sign up for this. It fell in his hands. … This great Georgian is going to lead us through these turbulent times.” 

Kemp said he would pray for the pastors, too.  

Staff writers Carrie Teegardin, Johnny Edwards, Greg Bluestein and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

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