How a small Georgia city far from New York became one of the worst coronavirus hotspots in the country

How a small Georgia city far from New York became one of the worst coronavirus hotspots in the country

Newtown Road Albany Georgia rural highway

  • Albany, Georgia is facing the fourth-worst outbreak of coronavirus per-capita in the United States.
  • The small city is three hours south of Atlanta, and saw its hospital overrun by patients in recent weeks.
  • Two funerals likely sparked the spread, but how the disease got to Albany in the first place remains a mystery.
  • Mayor Bo Dorough called for a stronger federal and state response so that other towns can avoid Albany's fate.
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Other than its name, Albany, Georgia has next to nothing in common with New York City.

The 75,000-person town is 40 miles from the nearest interstate, its link with Atlanta, some three hours' drive north. And the county in which it's located, Dougherty - dotted with 19th-century plantations and modern farms - already scores well below most other Georgia counties' health outcomes.

Yet as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States, Albany has been thrust into the national spotlight alongside new metropolitan peers.

Cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, hit 967 in Albany on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. It's a number dwarfed in size by New York City's more than 157,000 or New Orleans' 9,917, but on a per-capita basis the outbreak makes Albany the fourth-worst hit in the country, with 659 cases for every 100,000 people.


Albany, Georgia main street

How did it get so bad? Two funerals.

On March 12, the state's fist confirmed coronavirus death occurred. The 67-year-old victim had come to Albany to attend the funeral of a man who died in February of seemingly natural causes, The New York Times reported. It's not clear how he contracted the virus, which could have been silently spreading throughout the town undetected, officials told the paper.

"It took one person, whoever that was, and there was no intent," Scott Steiner, chief executive of the Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, told CNN. "It shows this virus can quickly spread."

In the following weeks, cases began to skyrocket. The likely epicenter: the funeral home.


The Martin Luther King Memorial Chapel said on Facebook that health department officials contacted the business on March 13. They said officials had discovered the pastor at the first service had likely contracted COVID-19, as well as others at another service on March 7.

"Although we have been identified as a common factor in the tracking of the COVID-19 in Albany, know that we are operating within all regulatory safety or health guidelines," the company said.

Meanwhile, hospitals were under siege.

"The next day it's when we began seeing people coming to our emergency room who were sick," Steiner told CNN. "Two the first day, six the next day, eight the next day, and it just began to cascade from that point."

All 14 intensive care beds in the city were full within two days, Steiner said, adding that the hospital went through six months' worth of supplies in less than a week.


Albany's hospital had become so overrun with sick patients that nurses were at one point told to keep working even if they tested positive for the virus, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. Like many other states, the hospital began looking to private sources to buy essential supplies like masks and ventilators.

Downtown, where many shops had shuttered since a March 23 statewide order, a brewery shifted gears to making hand sanitizer with its equipment as the state's national guard medical teams descended upon the town.

Downtown Albany Georgia

And as other small towns around the country brace for outbreaks of their own, Albany's mayor is urging other communities to brace for the impact.

He called for a stronger federal response.


"I think that this crisis needs to be managed more decisively from a federal and state level," Mayor Bo Dorough told WABE, Atlanta's public radio affiliate. "I think we have, at a minimum, the whole country should be in a shelter-in-place position."

"We're trying to deal with the situation that was cast upon us, that no one expected and no one was prepared for," he said.

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