Georgia Today: The Race To Stop Spread Of COVID-19
This first wave of COVID-19 is not over. After several weeks of declining numbers, the graph of infections in Georgia is beginning to resemble a hockey stick. Georgia Today host Steve Fennessy talks with Andy Miller, the editor of Georgia Health News. Andy takes us to Albany, Ga., one of the pandemic's first hotspots in the state. He also outlines the debate to mandate masks in cities like Atlanta and Savannah, and he helps us understand where the pandemic might be headed.
Andy Miller: If, if we don't get this under control — to a much greater degree than we have now and then we run into flu season — the impact on our health care system could be intense and immense. So that's why the next month or two are going to be very important.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, July 24th. The first wave of the pandemic is not over. After several weeks of declining numbers, the graph of infections in Georgia is beginning to resemble a hockey stick. Today, Georgia Health News founder and editor Andy Miller takes us to Albany, Georgia, one of the pandemics first hotspots. And looks at how the hospital there, Phoebe Putney Memorial, is seeing numbers climb again.
Andy, what happened in Albany in the early days of the pandemic?
Andy Miller: Steve, there were a couple of funerals that happened — I think it was late February.
Newscaster: Emell Murray has endured a lot of pain over the past 30 days. Back on February 29, hundreds of family and friends came to the small Georgia city of Albany to say goodbye to Andrew Mitchell, the man that she loved for the past 20 years. After several hours of crying and hugging each other, Murray started feeling sick.
News interviewer: That night, my mother went to bed. She had a fever. We didn't even know it at the time.
Newscaster: The 75 year old was, presumably, one of the first in Albany to be exposed to the coronavirus. She was hospitalized, but not immediately tested. Other members of there...
Andy Miller: And this is the time when COVID really wasn't in anybody's consciousness. What happened then was the person that was considered patient zero ended up at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, where...
Steve Fennessy: And that's the hospital in Albany, Georgia.
Andy Miller: It's, it's the hospital — it's basically the whole health care system in that area of the state. And Phoebe Putney became the epicenter.
Newscaster: This hospital has quickly become a hotspot for COVID-19 cases. They've had 20 positive cases and 70 more suspected cases. They're still waiting...
Andy Miller: I asked them, “Well, what's this doing to your hospital?” And they said, "Well, we went through a total of six months of personal protective equipment in five days."
Steve Fennessy: Jeez.
Scott Stiner: We've got an incredible community here in Albany. Nobody raised their hands and say, "gee, let it come here first." You know, we were 10 days before New York really busted and, and so, you know, it happened. And we were prepared, I think, as well as we could have been.
Andy Miller: Back in May, Scott Steiner, president and CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, was was preparing a plan to help his staff during this pandemic.
Scott Steiner: We know there's a big mental health piece coming post this event — not only here in Albany, but throughout, throughout the world. Some of these, these clinicians have seen things and had to do things they, they, they only had read about it, and — and maybe had nightmares about. But the decisions they had to make are going, are going to be long lasting. And so we're paying attention to that.
Steve Fennessy: I know that Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital was so overwhelmed at one point that doctors were coming out of retirement to, to help in the efforts. One of them was Dr. Lamont Smith, who put his retirement on hold and went back to work for an 80 hour a week rotation. He spoke with GPB News in March.
Lamont Smith: It overwhelmed the hospital really quickly — to the point where all of the ICU beds ended up being taken up by patients with COVID-19. And I saw people that I realized that we just weren't going to be able to save. That was what struck me so much. Not just the quantity of patients, the number of patients — it was that they were so sick that I thought, like, we didn't have any tools to make an impact on getting them well.
Andy Miller: Well, it seems like health care personnel are signing up for extra shifts, or longer shifts. We we know that we've brought in nurses and doctors from other states to help out. And that happened early on in Albany. So it's kind of an all hands on deck thing.
Melissa Scott: I'm not trying to be unprofessional — I'm upset. I just quit my job.
Newscaster: This emotional video of nurse Melissa Scott quitting her job has gone viral.
Melissa Scott: My manager sent me to a floor that is being tested for corona. She knows my health history. She knows all of this. I quit. I care about the patients and all. But my family and my, my life — they matter. They come first.
Newscaster: She worked at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, known as a hotbed for COVID-19.
Andy Miller: It's, it’s an issue, particularly in a smaller hospital. Because if you have a nurse get infected, then other people and other staff in that hospital have to, to self quarantine. And that could really put a squeeze on the medical care in that facility.
Steve Fennessy: I mean, if access to health care is already strained before the pandemic, this is just exacerbating it exponentially, I would think.
Andy Miller: We have physician shortages, nursing shortages, in rural areas of our state. And our state is — our population is growing, it's not getting less. And so COVID is having an effect there as well. And so the, the Phoebe Putney leadership reached out to the state. And were very transparent in terms of talking to the press about what their challenges were, which were very significant. And it only became worse in terms of the patient load there.
Steve Fennessy: You mentioned they were transparent talking to the press. Is that — has that been unusual to see in this, during this pandemic?
Andy Miller: I would say yes it, it was. And it still is unusual. It, it — hospitals will respond to inquiries, but many of them have shied away from giving statistics in terms of numbers of people in the hospital with COVID. And one reason I think is they, they believe that they don't want to be labeled in the public consciousness as a COVID hospital — that type of thing. And.... But, yeah, they are much more transparent than other hospital systems in the state.
Steve Fennessy: How many patients were there at, at a peak?
Andy Miller: Well, at one time, they had more than 150 COVID patients in the hospital there either. most of them were....
Steve Fennessy: And, and this is in a county that only has 90,000 people.
Andy Miller: Right. And, and there was a nursing home, too, there in Albany, that had many cases as well. So it just — it swept through that community.
Bo Dorough: We now know Dougherty County has the highest concentration of COVID-19 infections per capita in the state.
Steve Fennessy: That's Albany Mayor Bo Dorough speaking in March during a news conference.
Bo Dorough: A state run quarantine facility will be opened and operated here in Dougherty County. These decisions are motivated by the recognition that drastic measures must be taken to decelerate the spread of COVID-19.
Andy Miller: At one time, they had more than a 150 patients in the hospital that were either confirmed or suspected of having the disease — and it was overwhelming to them. They did get staffing help from the state. They brought staff from... And they brought in staff from other areas of the country. But Albany was a national hotspot for many weeks.
Bo Dorough: It is — I must emphasize — almost certain that the number of confirmed cases will increase substantially within the next seven days. Dougherty County is a flash point for the virus.
Steve Fennessy: Do we know why it continued to spread and, and keep infecting people there? Was there something about that area, or what was going on there?
Andy Miller: Well, I, I think, it's heavily African-American. And and certainly Black people — not only here in Georgia but across the country — have seen a disproportionate share of cases. Camara Jones of Morehouse School of Medicine says the racial disparities in the pandemic are clear.
Camara Jones: Black Americans are more exposed and less protected. So those two things together make them more likely to get infected. And then once infected, they're more burdened by chronic disease and have less access to health care — which makes them more likely to die or have at least a severe experience of the infection.
Andy Miller: Clearly, there's a disproportionate impact of COVID on African-Americans and Latinos in our state, and across the country.
Steve Fennessy: Back to Albany, to what degree was the, the surge that they encountered with COVID patients... how much was it overwhelming their ability to to provide other services beyond COVID treatment?
Andy Miller: Well, they had to cut out elective surgery. Now that, that occurred nationally. And in Georgia...
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Andy Miller: Where hospitals said, "OK, we can't do this right now. We have to focus our attention on COVID essentially. " And, and — treating these patients is very labor intensive. It's very... It requires a lot of PPE, requires a lot of mechanical help, to help people breathe and, and, and so — and so, nationwide, that was going on in hospitals.
But the issue for these facilities is that elective surgeries is one of the biggest profit areas for their operations. And so when they cut back on that, and when they ended that, it led to real financial difficulties for, for hosp— for hospitals and medical centers across the country.
Steve Fennessy: What specific financial problems was Phoebe Putney encountering?
Andy Miller: Well, they were saying that they were losing millions of dollars, you know, by — not only the, the cost of treating COVID, but also the absence of elective surgery and then...
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Andy Miller: Many people were afraid to going to the doctor...
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Andy Miller: like they should — like they regularly did, because they were afraid of getting COVID, if they went into an outpatient clinic or other facility. So it was a fin— a big financial problem for hospitals, including Phoebe, of course.
Newscaster: The demand for COVID-19 testing is rising. And yes, we have gotten reports of some people waiting in line for hours...
Steve Fennessy: We're seeing in metro Atlanta long lines for testing. In southwest Georgia, is access to testing as problematic as it is here in terms of — not just access to getting in line for a test — but just waiting on results?
Andy Miller: I think it just depends on where you go. You know, I was talking to someone who is in DeKalb County here that, you know, they didn't — they weren't going to schedule a test for him and, for many days. But he went to Fulton County and got one pretty much the next day. So I think it just depends on where you go. And I get the sense that it's, it's, it, it just is a matter of the local public health efforts.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Andy Miller: And it could be that a medical facility like Phoebe has a rapid test where if you go to an outpatient center, you might be able to get a rapid test or get one scheduled. But there are areas, I think — there are areas where you have to wait in our state.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Andy Miller: And another, another issue there is waiting for the test results. I mean, that was a problem early on where people were waiting seven to 10 days to get the results. And that supposedly, there are, you know, there — there's a big lag in getting test results again now.
Steve Fennessy: In the case of Phoebe in southwest Georgia, access to medical care has has been a significant issue in rural Georgia. Talk a little bit about, about that.
Andy Miller: Well, we have in Georgia the third highest uninsured rate in the country. And and in southwest Georgia, it's even higher. And that, compounded with the fact that it's generally a low income area — and low income people who are uninsured tend to not go to the, to the doctor, to the hospital when they should, when they have an emerging health problem. And so in that area, you had not only high levels of uninsured and high levels of poverty, but you had high levels of chronic disease as well.
So it's a, it's much more... It's probably the quote unquote least, “least healthy region in our state." And, and so that factored into all of this.
Steve Fennessy: To what degree was what was happening in Albany impacting sort of how Gov. Kemp was thinking about how he was going to respond statewide to the pandemic?
Andy Miller: Well, I think the governor focused early on, on building hospital capacity.
Brian Kemp: The state is exploring projects with the Army Corps of Engineers for arena space and large buildings. And we are considering the conversion of vacant and underutilized properties of all types for hospital space.
Andy Miller: So not only do you have that new facility — or that reopened facility in Albany — but Piedmont Health Care opened a a wing or a facility in Columbus. And then you had the governor setting up the Georgia World Congress Center as a, as a temporary hospital. And there, there've been other hospitals that have worked on adding capacity. And so, I think, the governor early on realized that — we can't run out of hospital beds just like was happening at the time in New York City.
Steve Fennessy: Right. Right. And the governor issues his shelter-in-place on April 3rd. And if you look at the stats, it seems the number of —the rate of infection seems to go down. Is that accurate?
Andy Miller: Well, I think nationwide and in Georgia, when, when those shelter orders went in, I think people paid attention to them and they cut down on their, on their various outside activities, outside the home activities. The numbers looked a lot better after that occurred.
Steve Fennessy: So what happened since?
Andy Miller: Well — like the rest of the state — they have seen an increase in hospitalizations from COVID, as hospitals across the state have. And they also... The testing that they've done recently, they've found that, there are a higher percentage of positive tests coming back. It's going up.
Brian Kemp: You know, nobody really followed Albany — we obviously did. We were working with them 24/7, literally flying people down there, personnel...
Steve Fennessy: Last week, Gov. Kemp was asked if masks should be mandatory. He brought up Albany.
Brian Kemp: They were as bad a hotspot as anywhere in the country. When you look at the numbers — as bad as New York, New Jersey, wherever. And we didn't have a mandate down there. Nobody was even talking about a mandate there.
Steve Fennessy: The science behind face masks is clear. But the politics behind them is anything but. That's just ahead. This is Georgia Today.
My guest is Andy Miller, founder and editor of Georgia Health News. Andy, we've seen some cities across Georgia go above and beyond what Gov. Kemp has ordered — they've mandated masks in their communities, even though the governor has said that those mandates are basically unenforceable.
Van Johnson: I mean, I'm not trying to get into any fights with anyone. I just want to help, help out folks and be safe.
Steve Fennessy: Savannah Mayor Van Johnson decided to mandate masks in his city.
Van Johnson: We know the science is very clear, that wearing face coverings helps decrease the spread of COVID-19. So, so I'm prepared to make that move that we mandate here —- that here in Savannah — for the safety of our citizens, citizens, and those that visit us here.
Steve Fennessy: Andy, let's start by talking about the science behind wearing a mask. Why should we be wearing them?
Andy Miller: Well, wearing a mask — a good mask — well, if you're infected, will prevent you from infecting someone else that you're in contact with. But also, a person wearing a mask themselves gets some level of protection, as well, from being infected by someone else. And, I think, the CDC has really evolved in its thinking originally. You know, it wasn't as, it wasn't emphasizing as much mask wearing, but now it is. Now, now they do.
CDC Director Robert Redfield: We realized that we had a pup — an important public health tool that we needed to take advantage of. And that's, if people were asymptomatic or pre-symptomatically infected, if they were wearing a face covering, that they would have less ability transmits to others. And so that's why we embrace this important public health tool.
Steve Fennessy: Dr. Redfield said that if everyone wore masks, we could have this under control, I think were his words, in six to eight weeks.
Andy Miller: We thought early on that COVID was kind-of going to burn out in the summer.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Andy Miller: Well, that certainly isn't — it's been just the opposite. It's accelerating now.
Steve Fennessy: So what does that say about the fall?
Andy Miller: Well, there are... Many hospitals are concerned about if, if we don't get this under control to a much greater degree than we have now — and then we run into flu season — the impact on our health care system could be intense and immense. So that's why the next month or two are going to be very important.
Steve Fennessy: There are some cities that are sort of deciding on its own to issue mask mandates, which puts them in an opposition to what the governor's office has said. Where's that taking us?
Andy Miller: Yes, Savannah. Atlanta. Athens, Augusta — and these are made, obviously, major places in our state. And people are getting mixed messages. I think that, I think these mayors obviously are concerned — they're seeing the numbers — they're hearing from their hospitals. They see the numbers of people who are infected in their communities and want to try to stop the spread.
Andy Miller: I mean, I think.... I mean, COVID-19 is like occupying our public consciousness and and, you know, in general. And I think political leaders recognize that and are trying to do anything they can to lower the numbers in their community.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: Well, it's my belief that the city of Atlanta still has the appropriate standing to mandate masks.
Steve Fennessy: This is Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: We all have to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. And what the scientists are telling us is that, the right thing to do is to wear masks.
Brian Kemp: This is about the lives and livelihoods of all Georgians.
Steve Fennessy: Last week, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the city council, following a decision by the city to mandate masks and to rollback to phase one reopening. During a press conference, Gov. Kemp had this to say about the suit.
Brian Kemp: When you have decisions that literally take away some, someone's ability — not only to operate and create confusion — but also to have them calling us saying, we got food in the freezer, we got food in the, the, the coolers. And if we shut down — that money's all gone. You know that, that's, that's not the right way to handle this.
Andy Miller: It's kind of a disjointed government effort, where on the one hand, you have different cities saying, you know, "We're requiring you to wear a mask" and then you have the state saying, "Well, we're not requiring that." We should be all in this together.
Newscaster: As businesses reopen across Georgia, the state is still working to improve in two categories top health officials say will slow the spread of COVID-19: testing and contact tracing. To ramp up testing today...
Steve Fennessy: I would be interested to know, kind of what contact tracing looks like throughout the state. Is it, is it focused more on the metro areas — simply because of the population density — or are they, are they going out to hot spots around that around the state? How is that working?
Andy Miller: The Department of Public Health has, has hired more than 1000 contact tracers, who are pretty hard at work trying to get a hold of people who may have come in contact with someone who has the infection. I think this is a extremely important thing to do. And it's, it's also important for people who get a phone call to cooperate with with these folks.
Contact tracing is going, is an important weapon to control the spread of this virus. And whether the state or any state has the personnel to be able to contact trace everybody....
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Andy Miller: That's that remains to be seen.
Steve Fennessy: Not long ago, Georgia Health News published a story about how difficult it is to get information from Georgia Department of Public Health. And in fact, open records requests filed not just by Georgia Health News, but by a lot of media outlets have gone un — Well, maybe not unacknowledged, but they have not been responded to with the information that's been requested. What's going on there?
Andy Miller: Information in a pandemic is vital. It's not just vital for reporters, but it's vital for average Georgians to know what's, you know, to have the best information to make their own decisions on their family and on their children — on sending their kids back to school. And, and getting that information to the public is what journalists are trying to do.
Steve Fennessy: And what, what would be in those — in the emails — that are being sought. What what what are you hoping to find?
Andy Miller: Well, it just depends... I, I, I, I don't know what other outlets are looking for. But I know we were looking at, at one time, about some nursing home issues. And, and just to get a sense as to what really is happening. I mean you can, as a reporter, sometimes, you get — you don't get as much information that you think the public needs to read in order to assess a particular situation. And, and I think that, I think that was pretty broadly what media organizations were trying to do, get — go beyond the actual numbers.
If there were 75 infections in a nursing home. Well, what happened there? Are they — are they fixing the problem or is the problem getting worse? Did they have enough staffing? And we know that nursing homes have been a, a, a, you know, a place where we've had many infections and many deaths.
Steve Fennessy: Where do you see us in six months?
Andy Miller: I hope we have a vaccine. I just hope, you know, there's plenty of candidates out there, they're pushing it — and rightly so. I hope we have an effective vaccine in six months. I hope we have therapeutics that help people who get it. And I hope our, our health care capacity keeps, you know, is sustained. That we're able to take care of the people we need to take care of.
I hope our economy is, is at least going back toward recovery. I have hopes. I, I, I, um — I have fears, too. And, I... Let's just, this is, this virus is just, a, a, you know — just a terrible thing in every way. And, you know, I think we still need to know more about it.
Steve Fennessy: Thanks to Andy Miller, editor of Georgia Health News. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today. A production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer, Sean Powers. Have a story idea for us? Drop us a line at GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. See you next week.