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Georgia focus of deciding Senate races ahead of Tuesday election
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ALBANY — A long year for voters and elections officials, who cast and counted ballots during a difficult time, in special elections, primaries that were delayed due to the coronavirus and the Nov. 3 general election, will extend into 2021.

Polling locations will be open statewide from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday for the three runoff races on the ballot.

The eyes of the nation are on the state as the two U.S. Senate runoffs will decide the balance of power in that body as voters cast their ballots. Incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both Republicans, face Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively.

A win by both Democrats would result in a 50-50 partisan balance in the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris being the swing vote, once sworn into office, to take control of the chamber. A win by either of the Republicans would allow the party to remain in charge.

Polls show both Senate races to be extremely close, which has added to the attention and resources being poured into the contests.

In a third statewide contest, incumbent Republican Public Service Commission member Lauren McDonald Jr. will face Democrat Daniel Blackman.

With so much riding on the Senate election, national groups from both ends of the political spectrum have been involved in the race. This week, Albany was the site of two challenges to the eligibility of voters to participate in the election.

On Monday, the Albany-Dougherty County Board of Registrations heard a case involving nearly 3,000 voters, and on Thursday, board members heard a much smaller challenge involving seven potential voters who registered in the county after the general election.

The board denied both challenges.

Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher, who helped mount the larger challenge, said there are names on the list of deceased people and voters who have moved out of the state.

Fletcher is working with True the Vote, the Houston, Texas-based organization that has mounted challenges in several Georgia counties, including Ben Hill and Muscogee counties, and also is involved in a challenge in a federal court. The group also is monitoring ballot drop boxes to document any cases of individuals dumping large numbers of ballots, Fletcher said.

Dougherty County has drop boxes located at the downtown Government Center at 222 Pine Ave. and at the Tallulah Massey, Southside and Northwest public library locations. Those drop boxes will be accessible through 7 p.m. Tuesday and will be removed at that time.

All 28 Dougherty County voting precincts also will be open for Election Day on Tuesday.

The registration board also moved early voting, which closed last week, to the Albany Civic Center for the election to give voters more room to spread out to practice social distancing during the pandemic and to help them avoid waiting outside in line. Voters are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks in polling places.

Voters, many of whom would rather avoid the risk of in-person voting through early voting or on election day, also have taken advantage of absentee mail-in ballots, and many have been mailed to voters. Fletcher said there were “red flags” on the 2,700 voters identified and that 975 had moved out of state.

True the Vote will continue to monitor the election through Tuesday, she said.

“They’re here,” she said. “We’ve got other groups coming in today.”

Face of local COVID-19 fight Scott Steiner Southwest Georgian of Year
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ALBANY — There will be no celebration, no handing out of some plaque or trophy for the sake of commemoration. Nor will there be any kind of official recognition that always seems to include a similar group of people.

But before the community officially put the wraps on 2020, The Albany Herald is unofficially/officially naming Phoebe Putney Health System President/CEO Scott Steiner its Southwest Georgian of the Year.

Steiner, who is coming up on his second anniversary as head of the local health system, stepping into the large shoes of past President/CEO Joel Wernick in March of 2019, has, by position, personality and indominable spirit, become the face of this region’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic, no small responsibility in a community that was, early in the pandemic, among the hottest of virus hot spots in the entire world. Tirelessly — at least from all outward appearances — Steiner became that calm voice in the night, telling bedraggled health care workers at Phoebe and a frightened public to “Hang in there ... it’s gonna be OK.”

Others who had significant impacts on the community and the region, and who in their own right deserve recognition for their selfless contributions, include Phoebe physicians Dr. Steven Kitchen, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital’s chief medical officer, and Phoebe Director of Emergency Medicine Dr. James Black; the entire staff at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital; Dougherty County Elections Supervisor Ginger Nickerson; Lee County High School football coach Dean Fabrizio, and Helping Hands Ending Hunger Albany coordinator Cathy Revell.

“Going through COVID as one of the few hot spots in the world — certainly in America — to see the surge so early, we kind of felt alone, from an industry standpoint,” Steiner said in a Saturday interview. “Of course, it was not that way from a community standpoint; our community has been behind us from the beginning of this ordeal.

“We were in a position where you really couldn’t look at an expanded picture. It was a matter of trying to get through the day. We were simply trying to answer the question ‘How do we get to tomorrow?’ It was, ‘We’ll deal with tomorrow tomorrow, right now let’s just get through this day.”

Steiner, who has an extensive background in health care administration, said he’s convinced God placed him in semi-rural southwest Georgia and prepared him to help this community deal with and work its way through the virus that continues a renewed surge that has it on the verge of overwhelming many health care facilities, including Phoebe.

“I have been preparing for just this kind of disaster my whole career,” Steiner said. “It’s the kind of event that takes you through every emotion. You feel deflated, tired, you wring your hands with worry, but at the same time you’re encouraged, inspired. It’s the kind of event that, initially, you start to feel that there’s no end in sight. Unfortunately, because of the recent surge, it’s starting to feel that way again.”

Still, Steiner says, there actually is an end in sight. When it comes, and how deeply residents are impacted, depends on how well they heed the recommendations of health care experts who are pleading for citizens to stay away from crowded events, to wear masks in public and to continue good hygiene practices like hand washing and social distancing.

“Before, in the early stages of the pandemic, there was a kind of ... well, despair is not quite the right word ... but there was an unknown,” the health system CEO said. “Now that everyone knows what we have to do to stop the spread, we get this Thanksgiving surge and, where anger is too harsh a word, it’s like ‘damn it ... when will people listen?’

“With the vaccine, there’s the glass-half-full of 60% of people who want to take it, and the 40% glass-half-empty of those who don’t, and, sadly, a lot of it is based on politics. But we will get herd immunity. At some point everyone will either have, A, gotten the virus or, B, gotten the vaccine. The vaccine is great, but vaccinations are the answer.”

Steiner admits that he’d like to “unplug,” “get away for a few days to disconnect.” But he says neither he nor Phoebe’s hard-working staff has been worn down by the fight against the pandemic.

“Like everyone else, I’m ready for this to be over,” he said. “But it hasn’t worn me down. I’m confident in our staff and what they’re capable of doing. I’m ready to take a breath and not feel like I have to be ‘on,’ as it’s been for the last 10 months. But this is something I’ve been preparing for my whole career. Not everyone was made to do this. I was.”

And, Steiner said, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be doing it.

“This is as good as it gets when you talk about this kind of emergency, to partner with a community that supports you in every way,” he said. “For me, it’s a matter of trying to stay in the moment, to offer a positive note when you feel everything kind of collapsing around you. You have to have — and I don’t mind being — the guy who says, ‘It’s gonna be OK.’ Because, while there is still a ways to go, in the end it is going to be OK.”

Black, Kitchen — who ended his career at Phoebe with the end of 2020 — and the Phoebe staff have, as Steiner said, been “on” without end since the pandemic spread rapidly in southwest Georgia in early March. With the pandemic raging and facing the most watched and contested election in American history, Nickerson and her staff in the Dougherty Elections office managed to get through the vote — and a subsequent hand recount — without serious incident.

Fabrizio, who has turned a baseball school that once was a laughingstock in football into a state powerhouse, had his Trojans within a break here or there of winning a third state title in four years, his team’s play providing a welcome distraction to the virus. With schools forced to hold classes virtually, Revell and Helping Hands volunteers and corporate sponsors held food giveaways to help make sure students in the local public school system and their families had adequate nourishment during the pandemic.

Hospitals bracing for new round of COVID cases linked to holiday celebrations
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ALBANY — The medical community issued a stark warning this week as COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked since the Thanksgiving holiday and a continued wave is anticipated from Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.

And this time, unlike the first wave of infections in the spring, there is no relief valve of sister hospitals to which patients can be diverted, as other regional health care facilities also are swamped.

Dr. James Black, director of emergency medicine at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, and Dougherty County Emergency Medical Services Director Sam Allen pleaded with the public to be smart by avoiding large gatherings and continuing safety measures, including wearing masks and good hygiene.

They were among the speakers during a news conference giving an update on the current impact of the disease in the community. Conspicuously absent from that meeting was Albany Mayor Bo Dorough. Dorough, city officials explained, had been exposed to the virus and was in self-quarantine. He was later tested for the virus, and test results were negative.

Through Friday, there had been 212 deaths of residents who were positive for the novel coronavirus, Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler. The coroner was investigating another nearly 10 suspected cases of residents who died outside the county, and he said he was awaiting additional information from the Georgia Department of Public Health on fatalities at other locations.

Phoebe saw a significant spike in the number of patients hospitalized after the Thanksgiving holiday, Black said, with the number being treated for COVID-19, including transfers from other facilities, averaging in the mid-20s for some time, Black said. On Friday that number had climbed to the mid-80s, and the number of severely ill patients also has increased.

Community transmission of the virus also has shot up. Recently, of those tested by Phoebe, some 30 percent have been positive, a number not seen since April, Black said. If those current trends continue, the hospital, which has the benefit of a temporary intensive care unit at Phoebe North on Palmyra Road, will be overwhelmed in the coming weeks.

“To make (the latest spike) more concerning, we were able to get cooperation from our neighbors and colleagues” in other hospital systems during the first wave of the virus, Black said. “Now they are facing the same thing we are facing. Our ability to transfer patients to other facilities is basically nonexistent.

“Based on our projections, by late January, early February, we could eclipse the numbers we had in April.”

Much of the state has significantly more cases than southwest Georgia, which was one of the hardest-hit regions in the state during the initial wave of COVID-19 in the spring.

The rest of the nation also is being slammed. Los Angeles County, Calif., reported two record days of deaths over the previous week, and funeral homes there are unable to keep up with the volume of victims as the situation is expected to worsen in coming weeks.

In addition to the strain on staff and supplies, hospitals in L.A. have reported being unable to maintain sufficient oxygen in aging pipes to supply all of the patients who are being assisted with breathing.

A new mutation of the virus, thought to be more easily transmissible than the original one, also has been confirmed in California, Florida and Texas.

Nationwide, the number of total cases surpassed 20 million in recent days, and deaths were at nearly 350,000, approaching the number of around 400,000 U.S. service members killed during the four years of World War II.

“We have a tremendous strain being placed on our hospital,” Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said. “If we continue on this path, we are going to be at capacity at Phoebe North by mid-January.”

The community has its destiny in its hands and can reverse the trend by continuing the efforts that helped reduce transmission during the initial onslaught, Cohilas said, by taking measures to protect themselves and others.

“I don’t want to be in the position we were in in March, April and May where we had to request an emergency morgue,” he said. “I don’t want to be there. But we have to take action. We have to be responsible.

“Pandemics are not like a hurricane, it’s not like a tornado. It does not have a (measurable) beginning and end.”

Sage Youngblood, Avalon United Methodist Church