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: 726600

Reported Deaths: 13379
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion992781737
Lake53359964
Allen40387675
St. Joseph35449550
Hamilton35440408
Elkhart28376439
Tippecanoe22336217
Vanderburgh22271396
Porter18637306
Johnson17876377
Hendricks17154314
Clark12919191
Madison12574339
Vigo12426245
Monroe11845169
LaPorte11773210
Delaware10615185
Howard9859215
Kosciusko9366117
Hancock8239140
Bartholomew8042155
Warrick7766155
Floyd7645177
Grant7019174
Wayne7018199
Boone6669101
Morgan6547139
Dubois6148117
Marshall6000111
Dearborn578577
Cass5780105
Henry5681102
Noble558283
Jackson500472
Shelby489496
Lawrence4492120
Gibson434391
Harrison434271
Clinton426853
DeKalb425284
Montgomery423388
Whitley394439
Huntington387480
Steuben382957
Miami380266
Knox371890
Jasper362747
Putnam358560
Wabash353178
Adams340654
Ripley338970
Jefferson328881
White312854
Daviess295899
Wells290481
Decatur283592
Fayette278662
Greene276685
Posey270933
LaGrange264770
Scott264753
Clay259245
Randolph239781
Washington239532
Spencer231331
Jennings229248
Starke214452
Fountain211946
Sullivan211042
Owen197056
Fulton194640
Jay191830
Carroll188120
Perry182637
Orange182454
Rush172925
Vermillion168343
Franklin167735
Tipton162345
Parke145916
Blackford134532
Pike133034
Pulaski116045
Newton107034
Brown101541
Crawford99114
Benton98414
Martin87815
Warren81415
Switzerland7848
Union70710
Ohio56211
Unassigned0413

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1080121

Reported Deaths: 19344
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1254981392
Cuyahoga1115202107
Hamilton798171200
Montgomery512711012
Summit46997933
Lucas41982782
Butler38273580
Stark32190907
Lorain24910480
Warren24249297
Mahoning21474586
Lake20586368
Clermont19727238
Delaware18496131
Licking16396210
Fairfield16144199
Trumbull15996466
Medina15233262
Greene15027244
Clark13960297
Wood13056188
Portage12806201
Allen11609231
Richland11308198
Miami10659215
Muskingum8795132
Wayne8777210
Columbiana8756229
Pickaway8547121
Marion8511135
Tuscarawas8467243
Erie7859154
Hancock6900126
Ross6835152
Ashtabula6777169
Geauga6665148
Scioto6398101
Belmont5856167
Union570047
Lawrence5542102
Jefferson5511151
Huron5422119
Darke5344122
Sandusky5330120
Seneca5268121
Athens518258
Washington5148109
Auglaize488484
Mercer480185
Shelby468593
Knox4479110
Madison435461
Putnam4268100
Ashland421289
Fulton420969
Defiance418997
Crawford3965106
Brown392957
Logan381176
Preble379098
Clinton370561
Ottawa366279
Highland353861
Williams338075
Champaign330458
Guernsey315453
Jackson312051
Perry294550
Morrow283839
Fayette281449
Hardin270364
Henry268166
Coshocton264258
Holmes2590101
Van Wert242863
Pike237433
Adams237052
Gallia235048
Wyandot230654
Hocking215162
Carroll191247
Paulding172440
Meigs144639
Noble133337
Monroe131942
Morgan108323
Harrison107537
Vinton82415
Unassigned02
Fort Wayne
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Hi: 59° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 42°
Angola
Partly Cloudy
41° wxIcon
Hi: 56° Lo: 37°
Feels Like: 38°
Huntington
Clear
48° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 35°
Feels Like: 46°
Decatur
Partly Cloudy
44° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 37°
Feels Like: 42°
Van Wert
Cloudy
47° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 37°
Feels Like: 44°
We'll start Friday off dry, but the chance of rain returns. Scattered showers will be possible by late morning until the evening.
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