ALBANY — Dougherty County got hit by a “perfect storm” in the spring when two largely attended funerals were the vector for a massive outbreak of COVID-19 in Albany.
The result was an overwhelmed hospital, the opening of an emergency morgue to handle the bodies and what local officials have said was the designation of the county as the third-biggest hot spot for the disease in the world.
While conditions have improved locally, the disease is spiking across much of the country and around the globe.
On Friday, there were 23 patients with the novel coronavirus hospitalized at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, mostly at its North Campus on Palmyra Road, where the state helped establish a facility for treating the overflow of patients.
That was down from 33 the previous Friday. At the peak of the first wave in Dougherty County, there were 86 beds filled with COVID patients, many of those being assisted with breathing by ventilators.
In Georgia, there have been 382,505 confirmed cases and 8,418 deaths as of Monday, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. In Dougherty County, there had been 3,367 confirmed cases and 196 deaths, with another four deaths listed as “probable.”
While the trend in Albany is positive, there are concerns. The new wave of infections saw the number of cases surpass 180,000 on Friday in the country, a 20 percent increase from the previous day.
With the coming of cold weather, which forces people to spend more time indoors, and the coming holiday season, when people will want to spend time together, officials say conditions are ripe for more spread of the disease.
Put that together with the arrival of the flu season, and the recipe is one that makes for doctors’ nightmares.
“I think that’s what public health (departments) and the medical community are fearing as we go into the flu season,” Dr. Steven Kitchen, Phoebe’s chief medical officer, said. “I think we could really overwhelm our hospitals and health care resources.”
In recent weeks, hospitals in a number of states have been overwhelmed by the number of patients, particularly in the Midwest and the Dakotas.
The Phoebe hospital system has braced itself for that possibility.
“We’re preparing ourselves if we need to use 86 beds at Phoebe North to treat patients with COVID-19,” Kitchen said. We’ve got the facilities; we’ve got the plan; we’ve got the supplies; we’ve got the medications.”
To some extent, the community learned, at a high cost in terms of lives and misery, from it’s first bout with the virus. During the Nov. 3 election, most voters wore masks, even though they were not required.
The city of Albany has passed an ordinance that requires masks when the infection rate hits a threshold set by the state.
While the county has not hit the 60 percent rate that is traditionally the mark set for a community to develop “herd immunity,” there is some discussion about whether the significant number of residents who have had the coronavirus offers some protection, Kitchen said. That protection from a disease can be hit by a combination of people who have been infected and recovered and/or been vaccinated.
“That’s one thing we’re wondering,” he said. “There’s no question the community transmission rate is down. Clearly we’re not at that 60 percent. We may have had enough people in the community that have some degree of immunity that it is reducing the overall level of transmission.
“I certainly hope we achieve that 60 percent through the availability of a vaccine, because we, unfortunately, know the level of suffering that is caused by this virus.”
Dougherty County isn’t an island, however, and the coming holiday season means that residents will be traveling to see loved ones and hosting visitors from other parts of the country.
Travel does present a risk, Kitchen said, particularly by air or long drives that require overnight stays before travelers reach their destinations.
One thing that has become clear is that this coronavirus is one that is easily spread because it resides mainly in the upper respiratory tract, so an infected person’s coughs and exhalations introduce it into the air.
And, unlike the flu, a person who has been infected can transmit the disease for several days before developing symptoms, Kitchen said. With the flu, the sick person usually becomes infectious to others at about the time as the onset of symptoms.
“There is that period of asymptomatic transmission where people are infected and they’re shedding the virus, but they don’t show any symptoms yet,” he said. “With COVID-19, it’s usually several days before the beginning of symptoms, but after people are shedding the virus. That’s part of the perfect storm.”
Those two factors make face masks a great means of protecting others, Kitchen said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control also recently announced that masks could provide protection to the wearer as well as others with which they are in close proximity.
“I think if people will wear a mask, it drastically reduces the risk of being infected,” Kitchen said. “And if you are infected and asymptomatic and don’t know it, it drastically reduces the chance of transmission.
“Different viruses have different characteristics and different modes of transmission. For this particular virus, which tends to reside predominantly in the upper respiratory (system), masking is so effective.”
Kitchen and elected officials have told the community that holiday celebrations do not have to be canceled altogether. However, they have cautioned people to consider ways to make the period safer.
“I am not going to be the person telling you not to get together with family and friends,” Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said. “I think there are safe ways to do that. I don’t think you need 50 or 100 people in a family reunion-type gathering.”
Kitchen and Cohilas said that people can reach out through the internet to have virtual face time with loved ones. Residents also should consider limiting contact with people who are most at risk of severe illness, such as the elderly and those who have underlying health conditions.
Many people have developed “COVID fatigue” at this point, so a reminder to keep doing the things that have helped decrease cases and deaths for the holiday season is a good one, Kitchen said. Frequent and thorough hand-washing is the other big tool in the arsenal for battling both the coronavirus and the flu.
“It really becomes hard over the course of time, and we are social creatures and really long to be able to get together with family and loved ones,” Kitchen said. “I think the holidays are going to be really challenging in whether there is an increase in the number of cases we see.”