ALBANY, Ga. – Dougherty County leaders placed this Southwest Georgia community of 90,000 on lockdown Friday night after the county coroner confirmed two more deaths due to COVID-19. With six deaths and 47 cases (through 7 p.m. Saturday), County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas asked all residents to shelter-in-place, starting Saturday morning.
Dougherty County’s first two deaths linked to coronavirus were confirmed Wednesday by Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, where doctors were bracing for conditions to worsen.
“Unfortunately, more deaths are likely to occur and we will certainly see more positive cases as we receive more test results,” Dr. Steven Kitchen, the Albany hospital’s chief medical officer, said in a news release.
Earlier in the week, WALB reported that officials believe the COVID-19 cases are linked to two large funerals, one at Gethsemane Worship Center and the other at New Direction Christian Church. Officials said there is also a possible connection to Martin Luther King Memorial Chapel.
Leaders also said they are not trying to cause panic, but want the community to know that if you are a member of either church or associated with members or interacted with M.L. King Funeral Home who you have symptoms of the coronavirus, you are asked to take appropriate caution.
“There is a very good chance that many in this room have been exposed to it," Phoebe Dr. James Black said at a news conference. "The vast majority of people that actually have been exposed to (COVID-19) or have been affected by it show little to no symptoms. You may have no symptoms; you may have a common cold. When you are evaluated, either by the screening process initially, we will determine whether or not if you are at a sufficient risk either because of places you may have been where we know there is a cluster or because of comorbid conditions that will make you more susceptible.”
Local officials ordered churches in Dougherty County to halt all services -- including Sunday worship, Bible studies and weddings -- until further notice. Meanwhile, funeral homes in the county agreed to hold only graveside services with attendance limited to family members.
“I recognize this is a very trying time and that people naturally want to congregate at church,” Cohilas told a news conference. “We know firsthand that has been the predominant way this virus has spread. And I want to emphasize it has spread through this community very, very quickly.”
On Saturday night, WALB reported that an employee with the Dougherty County District Attorney’s office tested positive for COVID-19. Dougherty County officials said the DA’s office will remain closed through March 27 in compliance with the standard quarantine period ordered for the virus and any individuals coming into contact with someone testing positive, which is based on CDC guidelines.
The general public and any other individuals, including employees of the city and county, who may have visited the DA’s office between March 9-13 for more than 10 minutes should quarantine at home for 14 days, starting with the last day they were in that office.
Charles Ruiz, director of Southwest Health District, said this high rate of infections is not unexpected. The number of positive cases identified in Georgia more than doubled from Thursday to Friday, but that is likely a function of more people being tested.
Ruiz also said that just because the numbers jump, does not mean the community is that much sicker, it is just confirmation of what was already suspected.
Dougherty County’s shelter-in-place order only allows for residents to leave their homes for work, medical emergencies or to check on family members, WALB-TV reported Friday night.
“Businesses such as grocery stores will remain open but are not to exceed 50 percent occupancy at one time. Those patrons should be reminded to keep a six-foot distance from others for extended periods of time," the order reads. “Restaurants are prohibited from providing services in their dining rooms but may provide drive-through, pickup/curbside, and delivery services. Bars, gyms, and similar businesses will continue to fall under the temporary closure order.”
Cohilas said outdoor activities are allowed but asked that residents not host any mass gatherings and remain vigilant about social distancing. Public information officer Wendy Howell gave answers on how many can retain household items and essentials.
“We are really trying to encourage people if you don’t have to go out, don’t go out. They are certainly encouraged to go get supplies if they need them but to limit their exposure in an outdoor setting like a store where lots of people are,” Dougherty County Public Information Officer Wendy Howell told WALB.
Dougherty County leaders also pushed for other counties, like neighboring Lee where 14 COVID-19 cases have been identified, to issue similar restrictions. Leaders said political borders are invisible to the disease and they need help from other governments to help prevent the spread of illness.
As of Friday night, Dougherty County had the highest concentration of coronavirus cases in Georgia outside of the metropolitan Atlanta area.