Antibody testing confirms high rate of COVID-19 infection in Dougherty County

Dr. James Black, director of emergency medicine at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, speaks during a Friday news conference.

ALBANY — Nearly 19,000 Dougherty County residents may have been infected with the novel coronavirus this year, far eclipsing the official tally gleaned from previous testing, according to the results of a study conducted earlier this year.

The report from Augusta University Health, which collected samples that were tested for blood antibodies in September, comes with some caveats, however.

Some of the data gathered was shared on Friday during a coronavirus news conference with city, county and medical leaders. The testing was funded jointly by the city of Albany, Dougherty County and the Dougherty County School System.

The study missed the target goal of at least 1,000 participants, with only 613 residents participating. Also, south and east Albany, which were the hardest hit by the pandemic in the spring, were underrepresented in the samples.

Of those who provided samples for testing, 21.53 percent tested positive for antibodies to the virus, indicating that they had been infected at some point.

“If representative of the population, this would suggest that as many as 18,900 persons in Dougherty County have experienced and recovered from COVID-19 as opposed to the 3,354 reported to date,” was a conclusion noted in the report.

The 3,354 figure comes from those residents who have had positive test results from testing performed in the county.

“This goes to reinforce what we had already been told, that many, most of the people, who have been infected with the virus show little or no symptoms,” Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said.

The highest infection rate among those who had antibody testing was among those 71 years and older. Out of 38 tested, 10 had blood antibodies, indicating exposure to the covonavirus, a rate of 36.3 percent.

The largest sample was provided among those ages 51 to 60, with 205 participating, of whom 47 were positive, a rate of 22.9 percent.

The tests partially confirmed what already was known. Dougherty County was one of the biggest hot spots in the world during the worst of the crisis here beginning in mid-March. There have been 198 confirmed virus-related deaths of county residents since then and five listed as probably COVID-related, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

According to researchers, “21.53 percent was a very high number for this community in comparison with other communities where they have done antibody testing,” Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said.

On Friday, 24 patients were being treated for COVID-19 at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, Dr. James Black, the hospital’s director for emergency medicine, said. Of those, 25 percent were from surrounding communities, some of which helped out Phoebe at the time it was overwhelmed with patients.

During the crisis, some people have been reluctant to seek help for treatment of serious health conditions, Black said, which could have serious implications. One elderly stroke victim recently waited three days before seeking medical care, he said. During the time lost, the patient could have received medications to reduce the severity of her condition.

“She said she knew she was having a stroke, but she was scared,” Black said. “Coronavirus is in front of us, but let’s make sure we are taking care of our chronic and acute health conditions.”

Nearly all COVID patients are being treated at the hospital’s North Campus on Palmyra Road, and there are protocols in place to prevent the spread of the disease at the hospital’s facilities, Black said.

The physician also suggested that residents think about how they will celebrate the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Traveling to, or having guests from, a hot spot could spread the disease in the community.

“We realize that brings certain challenges,” he said of celebrating a holiday during a pandemic, where elderly family members in particular may want to see loved ones. “I think we can do that the smart way. We want to continue to be disciplined.

“We’ve been recommending limiting your travel, limiting your gatherings and consider having meals outside. Just because they’re related to you doesn’t mean they don’t pose a risk.”

While virtual gatherings online are not ideal, it is one option to consider to protect those who may be at risk, Cohilas said. Compared to where the county was in the spring, conditions are now much improved.

“I am thankful for that in this Thanksgiving season,” Cohilas said. “Here in Dougherty County, we have so much to be thankful for. We have overcome tremendous odds, maybe more than any other community I have seen that has faced something of this type.”

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