ALBANY — The Dougherty County Coroner’s Office is investigating three weekend deaths that could be linked to the coronavirus.
Two of the victims were in their 40s and one in their 70s, Coroner Michael Fowler said on Tuesday.
“There’s a great possibility” the three died of COVID-19, he said. “With all three, it’s a great possibility. All the medical symptoms are pointing to this.”
The three bodies have been sent for autopsy and will be tested for the virus. So far the only confirmed death linked to the area is a person who attended a funeral and later died in Atlanta.
“What we’re doing now, we’ve got to check out everything,” Fowler said. “We’re waiting on tests.”
During a Tuesday-morning news conference, health officials said that a cluster of cases in Dougherty County — where transmission occurred at two funeral services held at two local churches and involved a single funeral home — is one of the most significant in the state.
Because of that, officials are now making recommendations to limit potential spread during funeral services.
Medical personnel expect the number of confirmed cases to grow in coming days as test results are returned for some 177 people who have been tested by area health providers.
Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital took test samples from 78 of those patients on Monday at a drive-through location.
Following the news conference, Fowler handed out a release from the Southwest Public Health District that encourages residents to follow social-distancing practices during funeral and memorial services.
“If we participate in a gathering, we still want to do everything we can to keep the odds in our favor, like avoiding close contact, still trying to keep 6 feet between people, washing hands frequently,” District Health Director Charles Ruis said.
People who are coughing or sneezing should not attend, he said, noting that the virus is spread through respiratory droplets.
“At Public Health, we hope that families who have a loss can mourn in creative ways that will result in less transmission,” Ruis said.
Fowler said one precaution funeral homes can take is limiting services to graveside services for family members only and holding a memorial service at a later date. They also should post someone at the door with hand gel or sanitized wipes for hands during visitation, frequently clean door handles and other points of contact and discourage individuals who are sick from attending services.
“Also, if they’re going to have multiple services, funeral homes need to disinfect the car in between use for each family,” he said.
Other suggestions include a live video screening for family members and friends who cannot travel to the site or are sick and to minimize the number of people gathered.
The Albany Police Department announced on Monday that one of its officers responded on Sunday to a South Van Buren Street residence where a 43-year-old woman, one of the three deaths referenced by Fowler, died. Family members told police that the woman had an underlying health condition but had tested negative for influenza.
The police department announced on Monday that it will take measures to “reduce the amount of personal contact with citizens” during the pandemic.
“Calls for service that are not in-progress, non-violent or non-emergency will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine if these calls can be handled via telephone,” the agency said in a news release.
“If these calls require a generated report, then the officer can take the information over the phone. Emergency calls for service or other calls for service which need the presence of an officer will have an officer respond to that call.”