ALBANY — In the midst of the usual daily statistics on Friday, a Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital physician shared a story of the human toll COVID-19 is having on the staff and community.
A nurse had just been with a critically ill patient when the tubes were removed and the patient died, said Dr. Steven Kitchen, Phoebe’s chief medical officer, related during a Friday news conference.
As of Saturday morning, there have been 38 confirmed deaths of patients who have tested positive for the coronavirus, with eight cases under investigation, Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said.
“She was the only one present when that patient reached a point where all treatments and all efforts were futile,” Kitchen said of the patient who died earlier in the week.
Kitchen arrived in the intensive care unit at about the time the patient died and encountered the nurse, who was visibly moved.
“That nurse was the only one present,” he said. “We couldn’t embrace.”
Kitchen also was a friend of Dougherty County Probate Court Judge Nancy Stephenson, who died on Wednesday.
“It’s been a profound personal loss,” he said. “She and (husband) John are personal friends, and throughout the years we had many opportunities to share great times with our families.
“I know we all have a profound sense of loss. We need to acknowledge the suffering that is going on. There have been too many deaths.”
Other families are suffering losses daily, Kitchen said.
“We have to acknowledge the amount of suffering going on within our hospital, within our intensive care units and within our community at large,” he said.
Other officials at the news conference also paid tribute to Stephenson.
On Friday, the hospital was preparing to discharge home its third patient who had been critically ill and on a ventilator for an extended length of time. As of noon Friday, 837 patients had tested positive for the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, and 32 deaths were recorded at Phoebe and an additional four deaths at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center.
Other area residents have died at hospitals in other cities, as some patients have been transported out of town when coronavirus cases have exceeded Phoebe’s intensive care unit capacity. Phoebe officials expect the number of patients requiring hospitalization and time in intensive care to increase in coming weeks.
As of Friday, the oldest victim was 98 and the youngest was 34, Fowler said. The disease has struck the elderly the hardest, but 10 percent of those who have died have been in their 30s and 10 percent have been in their 40s.
Kitchen said that Phoebe has increased ICU capacity at the hospital from 38 to 50 and plans to have additional beds available at the Phoebe North campus on Palmyra Road in about two weeks.
Kitchen also announced that the hospital now has testing capacity to perform tests that will give the medical staff results on coronavirus tests in a matter of hours.
As of Friday there were 1,233 patients for whom the hospital was awaiting test results, and results from private laboratories have been taking as many as eight to 10 days. The hospital planned to test the 1,233 patients with the rapid tests to get quick results.
As of Friday, there had been 1,324 patients who tested negative, and 152 patients who had recovered from COVID-19.
Kitchen and elected officials again pleaded with the public to follow the shelter-in-place order. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Friday issued a statewide order that went into effect at 6 p.m. that day. The statewide order is similar to the one enacted by the county in mid-March and closes bars, bowling alleys, entertainment venues, gyms and fitness centers, theaters, beauty, barber and nail salons, and massage therapists.
The order allows funeral services, but limits them to 10 participants. The county’s order that also applied to the city of Albany had restricted them to graveside services.
Kemp’s order maintains social distancing guidelines, so customers in stores are required to keep a distance of at least 6 feet between others. Churches may hold services attended by 10 or fewer people, and residents are encouraged to watch services online.
“You can have the virus and not know it,” Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said. “Someone can literally touch something — never knowing they have the virus — and transmit it to an 85-year-old grandmother. That is a tremendous responsibility.
“This is something we need to think about, whether we’re going to stand too close at grocery stores, whether we’re going to throw house parties.”