ALBANY — The Dougherty County Courthouse will remain closed to the general public for another month under a recent order issued by the Dougherty Circuit’s Superior Court chief judge intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Through Monday, 134 Dougherty County residents who tested positive for the coronavirus have died, Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said. Three weekend deaths were recorded, and COVID-19 is the suspected cause. Each is under investigation.

Judge Willie E. Lockette’s order, issued on Friday, extended through June 17 a previous directive closing the Judicial Building that expired Sunday. Lockette issued the first emergency order on March 13, and the Judicial Building was closed to the general public on March 30. Lockette has extended the original emergency declaration twice.

In addition, Lockette directed all courts, including Albany Municipal court, as well as Magistrate, Probate, Juvenile, State and Superior courts, to continue to conduct necessary civil and criminal hearings through teleconferencing until the issuance of detailed guidelines is made concerning in-person court proceedings.

“Despite the fact that this circuit’s courts have continued to adhere to public health and safety guidelines designed to prevent the spread of the virus, discontinued jury trials, grand juries, arraignments and calendar calls, used available technology to conduct proceedings by remote means and limited substantially the work conducted at the courthouse, a significant and disturbing number of courthouse employees, including judges, judicial assistants, secretaries, deputies, bailiffs, clerks (and others) and/or their spouses and family members have and continue to test positive and/or be quarantined or hospitalized for COVID-19,” Lockette said in the order.

“Three of the circuit’s judges contracted and were treated for the virus, and one judge unfortunately passed away from COVID-19. Five or more courthouse employees and/or their family members have tested positive, experienced symptoms and either been quarantined and/or treated for the virus within the past two weeks.”

Dougherty County Probate Court Judge Nancy Stephenson, 63, died at her home on April 1 from cardiac issues complicated by COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Phoebe Putney Health System has seen a recent uptick in the number of admissions of COVID-19 patients.

That increase was due to the hospital running out of rapid tests that gave results in about an hour. On Monday, there were 40 patients at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital who have tested positive and an additional 27 hospitalized while awaiting test results.

Another 24 patients were at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, 12 of whom have tested positive and an equal number awaiting test results.

“For the last seven weeks, we have been able to conduct in-house rapid COVID-19 testing on every patient being admitted to our hospitals,” Phoebe Health System CEO Scott Steiner said. “Knowing right away whether patients are positive has allowed us to admit them to units where they will receive the most appropriate care, cohort COVID-19 patients together, conserve personal protective equipment and best protect our staff. Unfortunately, our supply of rapid tests ran out over the weekend, and we are now forced to wait several days to get lab results back.”

The hospitals are treating all patients with any coronavirus symptoms as potentially positive “out of an abundance of caution,” Steiner said.

“That’s just the right thing to do to protect our staff and other patients,” he said. “It is imperative that we have uninterrupted access to rapid testing, and it is frustrating that the supply of re-agents needed to conduct that testing has been inconsistent. We have come close to running out on previous occasions, and a shipment we were supposed to receive last week did not arrive.

“We are working with our state and federal partners to try (to) ensure more reliable deliveries of these vital tests.”

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