How two funerals helped turn one small Georgia city into a hotspot for coronavirus

Scott Steiner, President and CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System tells CNN's Kate Bolduan how his hospital in the small town of Albany, Georgia, has been handling the sudden surge of coronavirus cases in the area.

Posted: Apr 3, 2020 2:50 AM
Updated: Apr 3, 2020 2:50 AM

When a retired janitor suddenly died in southern Georgia, crowds of relatives and friends flocked to a local funeral home and mourned together. Within weeks, their city was overrun by coronavirus cases.

That cluster of coronavirus cases was linked to the funerals of 64-year-old Andrew J. Mitchell and another man, held in late February and early March, Dougherty County Council Chairman Chris Cohilas said. Albany, a city of roughly 75,000 people -- as well as Cohilas' county, where Albany is based -- is the latest example of how the virus has started disrupting smaller, more rural areas as much as the country's larger, urban cities.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were at least 490 confirmed coronavirus cases reported in Dougherty County and at least 29 coronavirus-related deaths, the Georgia Department of Public Health said.

About 20 people who attended at least one of the funerals contracted the virus, said Scott Steiner, the chief executive officer of Phoebe Putney Health System, which has its biggest hospital in Albany.

"It took one person, whoever that was, and there was no intent," Steiner told CNN. "It shows this virus can quickly spread."

A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Health acknowledged the virus spread among "individuals who attended a number of events in Albany" but said it's unclear "where or with whom it all started."

'It was like a domino effect'

Emell Murray discovered her long-time companion, Andrew J. Mitchell, unconscious in the living room of their home on February 24. The family said they suspect he had a heart attack and died.

After his passing, their siblings, nephews, nieces and friends traveled to Albany to pay their respects at his funeral service, and later spent the afternoon at Murray and Mitchell's home.

A couple of days later, Murray, 75, was hospitalized. She had a fever and her blood pressure skyrocketed.

"We didn't know what was wrong with her," Alice Bell, Murray's daughter, told CNN.

Murray spent much of March at the hospital. In between visits, doctors informed her she had tested positive for coronavirus.

But she wasn't the only one.

Several of the couple's relatives contracted the virus, Bell said. The pastor who delivered Mitchell's eulogy, she said, has since died of coronavirus complications. Steiner, the hospital system CEO, confirmed that.

"It was like a domino effect," Bell said.

The Martin Luther King Memorial Chapel LLC, which hosted the respective funerals on February 29 and March 7, said health department officials notified them on March 13 about a potential exposure to the virus involving people who were present at the events.

The AJC first reported the funerals as the source of the city's outbreak.

"Although we have been identified as a common factor in the tracking of the Covid-19 in Albany, know that we are operating within all regulatory safety or health guidelines," the funeral home directors wrote in a Facebook post. "We know that there is growing concern across the city. We are taking extra precautions to protect you, our staff and the communities we serve."

The funeral home did not respond to CNN's repeated attempts for comment.

The cluster of cases began emerging shortly after a 67-year-old man tested positive for the virus. The man traveled from Atlanta to attend one of the funerals and was hospitalized in Albany during his trip, said Steiner, the hospital system's CEO.

"The next day it's when we began seeing people coming to our emergency room who were sick," Steiner said. "Two (people) the first day, six the next day, eight the next day, and it just began to cascade from that point."

Some of those patients had attended the funerals, others were members of the same churches, Steiner said.

Life changed quickly in Albany

The virus had been traveling through this close-knit community for several weeks by the time social distancing warnings came in.

Before the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines limiting gatherings to 50 people in mid-March, hundreds of runners flooded the city's streets for the Snickers marathon and half-marathon -- one of the top 10 qualifiers for the Boston Marathon.

They enjoyed live music during a downtown festival and packed the local churches on Sundays.

As more people fell sick, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters that he was concerned about the growing number of cases in Albany.

"This situation cannot be more serious," Kemp said on March 19. "Stay home if you are sick. If there's any doubt, stay home. We've had this happen in many places around the state, with sick individuals attending funerals which has created one of the hot spots we have around the state. I think it's a good example we can all learn from."

Local officials declared a state of emergency on the same day, banning community gatherings of more than 10 people after four coronavirus-related deaths were reported. A stay-at-home order followed a few days later.

The state sent its national guard to help

The epicenter of the pandemic for the coronavirus outbreak quickly changed from Washington to New York. As that happened, the virus' impact also became evident in Georgia.

Georgia has at least 4,748 confirmed coronavirus cases, and at least 154 deaths in the state. The highest number of cases has been reported in Fulton County -- which includes Atlanta, and has a population of about 1 million people. But Dougherty County -- which has a population of about 85,000 people, and where Albany is -- is a close second.

Earlier this week, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, urged rural communities in the US to prepare for the spread of Covid-19, "even though you think it's not there."

Health care workers at Phoebe Putney Health System went through six months' worth of supplies in less than a week, Steiner said. Some health care workers are sleeping in their garages to protect their families and the intensive care units are quickly filling up.

Kemp deployed Georgia National Guard medical teams to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, which has been the most inundated with patients. He's also deploying more than 100 Guard troops to long-term care facilities throughout the state that have seen coronavirus cases.

He said Wednesday that Georgia hospitals might reach peak hospital capacity on April 23.

For CaMia Hopson, an Albany state representative who lost a friend to coronavirus, life in the region feels like it will never be the same.

"We weathered tornadoes, hurricanes, everything ... but our entire world is dealing with something that we haven't seen in our lifetime," Hopson told CNN. "People are grieving, we are really hurting right now. We are not New York, but we are still impacted."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 306538

Reported Deaths: 5435
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion41953849
Lake26872453
Allen17621295
Elkhart16905219
St. Joseph16524223
Hamilton12696167
Vanderburgh9552115
Tippecanoe844927
Porter813785
Johnson6231165
Vigo597979
Hendricks5944156
Monroe530349
Clark504077
Madison4858121
Delaware4820103
LaPorte457194
Kosciusko455739
Howard334975
Warrick319572
Floyd311477
Bartholomew308462
Wayne301367
Cass295831
Marshall293744
Grant262949
Noble249846
Hancock246551
Boone240254
Henry240237
Dubois234631
Dearborn215730
Jackson212633
Morgan204443
Gibson181725
Knox181419
Shelby178254
Clinton177821
Lawrence174047
DeKalb172829
Adams166422
Wabash158020
Miami157814
Daviess154643
Fayette147733
Steuben143513
Jasper142111
Harrison141824
LaGrange140129
Montgomery139027
Whitley133412
Ripley128114
Decatur124643
Huntington123510
Putnam123027
Randolph120719
Wells120428
White120321
Clay119822
Posey119616
Jefferson116216
Scott103219
Greene101353
Jay96413
Starke90621
Sullivan88916
Fulton83518
Jennings83214
Spencer8198
Perry81521
Fountain7738
Washington7417
Franklin68626
Carroll67913
Orange66628
Vermillion5993
Owen5987
Parke5606
Newton55312
Tipton55226
Rush5317
Blackford51912
Pike50318
Pulaski37710
Martin3515
Benton3362
Brown3353
Crawford2881
Union2671
Switzerland2555
Warren2382
Ohio2307
Unassigned0266

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 371840

Reported Deaths: 6100
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin50231667
Cuyahoga36047741
Hamilton29931372
Montgomery20065228
Butler14769146
Lucas14317414
Summit13388316
Stark8792197
Warren819175
Mahoning7276299
Lake682666
Lorain643499
Clermont577248
Delaware556436
Licking549276
Fairfield538464
Trumbull5305147
Greene522364
Clark511464
Allen465485
Marion465251
Wood4491107
Medina447756
Miami425867
Pickaway399348
Columbiana347297
Portage344872
Tuscarawas328658
Wayne318793
Richland316638
Mercer289945
Hancock241337
Ross240759
Muskingum240210
Auglaize231031
Putnam224749
Erie224266
Darke223559
Ashtabula223253
Geauga203351
Scioto195915
Union19118
Shelby190615
Lawrence189438
Athens18864
Seneca180018
Belmont164929
Madison158918
Sandusky154229
Preble152621
Huron152318
Defiance139522
Holmes139139
Logan127816
Knox126318
Fulton124525
Washington121927
Crawford121516
Ottawa121130
Clinton106714
Williams10579
Ashland105222
Highland101317
Jefferson10124
Henry100023
Brown9925
Champaign9475
Jackson93112
Hardin91019
Fayette90317
Van Wert8976
Morrow8882
Guernsey83914
Coshocton82613
Perry78712
Adams78313
Pike7451
Gallia73513
Wyandot71216
Paulding64611
Hocking62616
Noble60223
Carroll45710
Meigs39012
Monroe31821
Morgan2575
Vinton2195
Harrison2023
Unassigned00
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