ALBANY — The news about the spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths hitting records is by now familiar, but on Friday Albany Mayor Bo Dorough brought home the human toll of the disease.
During a Friday coronavirus news conference, Dorough told of how COVID-19 had isolated his father, Kermit Sanders Dorough, over the last year, and on Jan. 7 took his life as family members gathered around him.
On the same day, 4,071 Americans died from complications of the virus, Dorough said.
“I will not remember that number, but I will remember that date because my father was one of them,” Dorough said during his remarks at the news conference featuring community elected and medical leaders. “My father was moaning and gasping for air. The nurse referred to it as ‘agonal breathing’ and told me and my brother the end was near.”
During the pandemic, Dorough’s father was in a personal care home where residents ate their meals in their rooms and had little interaction. He was unable to go out to attend church or for other social activities, the mayor said.
“COVID broke my father’s spirit before it took his life,” he said. “He could not celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with his family. The loneliness led to despair.”
Dorough also pleaded with the community to take the virus seriously and take the actions necessary to slow its spread.
The news conference came as the number of patients hospitalized at Phoebe Putney Health system was near the 130 mark, with nearly 20 deaths in recent days. More than 220 Dougherty County residents have died during the pandemic.
Millions of Americans have defied the common-sense, scientifically proven measures asked of them, Dorough said, gathering in bars and nightclubs and traveling and gathering during the holidays against the advice of medical professionals.
Across the country, the pleas by doctors for people to wear face masks have been disregarded and even protested by many, in some cases violently.
“The fact is, too many of us are too selfish, too narrow-minded, too insensitive to protect others if they are in any way inconvenienced,” Dorough said. “I am upset, I am disappointed, I am angry, but mostly, I am grieving.
“This pandemic has claimed the lives of 390,000 Americans. Experts tell us the next three weeks will be the worst yet, with as many as 90,000 deaths.”
At Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, conditions are approaching the previous worst period of the pandemic, said Dr. James Black, director of emergency medicine at the facility. The hospital has continued to use an emergency set-up at the Phoebe North location on Palmyra Road, and has seen numbers increase drastically.
“It remains probable and likely we are going to exceed the number of patients we had over April and March,” Black said. “At this pace, if we continue, January will be the deadliest month, even worse than March and April. Seventeen died over the last several days.”
The physician urged southwest Georgia residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible, invoking the past success the country has had with programs to immunize against deadly diseases.
“Think about how many of you have had smallpox,” he said. “Think about how many of you have had polio. Think about how many of you have had diphtheria. How about rubella? How about measles?
“These diseases have pretty much been eradicated in the United States, and smallpox throughout the world. These are real diseases we have been able to control and eradicate through vaccinations.”
In the beginning, the two vaccines approved so far were earmarked for medical and hospital staff and residents of congregant-living facilities such as nursing homes, but have been opened up in recent days to those over 65 and other first responders such as firefighters and police officers.
Some people have concerns about severe reactions to the vaccine, Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said, but so far no one who has received shots has experienced such symptoms. Dougherty County Emergency Medical Services is on hand at Phoebe’s vaccination site.
“We are now vaccinating 650 people a day,” Cohilas said. “Every single day there is an EMT there to respond in the event of a catastrophic reaction. You know how many times they’ve had to do that work? Zero. It’s not me making a testimonial to you. It’s just the information I have from talking with our folks.”
The infection rate in the county has been hovering around the 17 to 18% range, he said, and with the number of deaths soaring, the vaccine is becoming more available at a crucial time. The chairman urged residents to seek out reliable sources of information about vaccines and not depend on social media posts from individuals who are not trained in the medical field.
“I’m going to be very blunt and very direct,” Cohilas said. “We are in a very complicated time with the fact that we have light at the end of the tunnel. We have tremendous hope with the vaccine being in the community at the same time we have a tremendous amount of infection in the community. While it’s not going to fix everything, it’s important to grasp onto hope.”
Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler reported during the news conference that there have been 224 confirmed deaths of county residents who tested positive for the novel coronavirus, with a number of other cases where it is suspected or under investigation.
Fowler made his remarks wearing a full protective suit, which he said he has had to go back to donning due to current conditions.
He listed groups of people he knows who have succumbed to the disease.
“I thank God I don’t have the virus,” he said. “But I have friends who have had the virus. I have friends who have the virus now. I have friends who have died with the virus.”
The coroner then used the same sentences, replacing “friends” with “colleagues,” “pastors and church members” and then “classmates.”
“I remember when we were starting out, and I was hoping we wouldn’t have 50 deaths,” he said. “Then we were at 100. Then we hit 200, and we are headed toward 300.
“We cannot let up. Let’s follow the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines. I do not want to get to 300.”