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

A rural county in southwestern Georgia has emerged as an unlikely coronavirus hotspot. CNN's Dianne Gallagher reports that Georgia health officials believe a quarter of the state's 5,400 cases may have started at two funerals in the city of Albany.

Posted: Apr 3, 2020 6:51 PM
Updated: Apr 3, 2020 6:51 PM

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: 608519

Reported Deaths: 9693
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion840461335
Lake45349684
Allen32803548
Hamilton29394315
St. Joseph27380381
Elkhart24404345
Vanderburgh19411249
Tippecanoe17970138
Johnson15069295
Porter14783169
Hendricks14401248
Madison10965221
Vigo10726181
Clark10677144
Monroe9383110
Delaware9116134
LaPorte9065163
Howard8236144
Kosciusko806983
Warrick672999
Hancock6697104
Bartholomew6484100
Floyd6428110
Wayne6136162
Grant5991115
Dubois555579
Boone551168
Morgan541295
Henry507864
Marshall503984
Cass483263
Dearborn479845
Noble473059
Jackson425047
Shelby417581
Lawrence391079
Clinton373043
Gibson370359
Harrison348144
DeKalb347164
Montgomery345754
Knox335639
Miami321444
Steuben313745
Whitley307326
Wabash303251
Adams300936
Ripley298445
Putnam296850
Huntington291659
Jasper289034
White273243
Daviess270474
Jefferson263338
Decatur247683
Fayette247148
Greene239862
Posey239328
Wells236051
LaGrange228862
Scott225339
Clay222532
Randolph213548
Jennings198936
Sullivan192333
Spencer191321
Washington186423
Fountain184027
Starke175443
Jay167623
Owen165737
Fulton164030
Orange159534
Carroll158015
Rush155118
Perry154229
Vermillion149134
Franklin148333
Tipton132332
Parke13078
Pike116926
Blackford111022
Pulaski97037
Newton90921
Brown88035
Benton86610
Crawford7999
Martin73713
Warren6817
Switzerland6615
Union6287
Ohio4907
Unassigned0376

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 859841

Reported Deaths: 10680
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin101171707
Cuyahoga855711125
Hamilton64017448
Montgomery43107418
Summit34836761
Lucas31350625
Butler30973232
Stark25786435
Warren19671140
Lorain19017223
Mahoning17321338
Lake16080154
Clermont15926111
Delaware1438878
Licking13204137
Trumbull12809316
Fairfield1279381
Greene12055137
Medina11591168
Clark10942265
Wood10348158
Allen9897126
Portage9296109
Miami916873
Richland9139118
Marion7459113
Tuscarawas7381182
Columbiana7327124
Pickaway726150
Wayne7034171
Muskingum703141
Erie6152129
Hancock552390
Ross548998
Scioto539164
Geauga508455
Darke470292
Ashtabula453073
Lawrence452654
Union451828
Sandusky436662
Mercer433589
Seneca430166
Huron428741
Auglaize422264
Shelby421222
Jefferson419269
Belmont416840
Washington388740
Athens38009
Putnam374975
Madison355129
Knox352622
Ashland344938
Fulton338443
Defiance330086
Crawford322374
Preble320637
Brown312921
Logan307332
Ottawa293943
Clinton290143
Williams278667
Highland275118
Jackson263845
Guernsey254125
Champaign252028
Fayette236530
Morrow23234
Perry231318
Holmes225474
Henry218749
Hardin213033
Coshocton205622
Van Wert202245
Gallia196726
Wyandot196051
Pike176217
Adams176115
Hocking172024
Carroll155616
Paulding144321
Noble120540
Meigs108624
Monroe100732
Harrison89121
Morgan83130
Vinton70213
Unassigned00
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