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Coronavirus Cases Overwhelm Georgia Community

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Look at a list of U.S. metro areas hardest hit by the coronavirus, and you find some of the biggest cities in America - New York, New Orleans, Seattle. It makes intuitive sense that we would find the virus in crowded port cities that are closely tied to the wider world. But that list of hard-hit cities also makes clear that nowhere in America is safe because that list includes Albany, Ga., a small city, inland, where the biggest hospital is overwhelmed by hundreds of cases.

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough is on the line. Mayor, welcome to the program.

BO DOROUGH: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How has life changed as the scale of the outbreak has emerged in your city of 73,000 or so?

DOROUGH: Well, Steve, it's gradually reduced all the economic activity. Of course, the first thing we did was close bars, restaurants, city parks, the library. The medical professionals told us that that was not sufficient, following which, we adopted a shelter-in-place order. And at this point in time, fortunately, most of our citizens are being compliant.

But it is difficult. We have kids who are out of school - college kids who - they're not returned to campus. And unfortunately, they don't have anything to do. They can't go to the theater. They can't go to the mall. They can't go to gyms. And so we're having some problems of people congregating. And also, many business owners are understandably frustrated that their businesses have been closed.

INSKEEP: As of a few days ago, I believe that your metro area had something north of 500 cases. How are your hospitals doing?

DOROUGH: Well, that is an issue. The first thing we did when we closed the bars and restaurants - and I was - mentioned earlier that the health care professionals told us this isn't sufficient.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DOROUGH: Prior to implementing the shelter-in-place order, we were notified that the hospital was within a few days of approaching capacity. And of course, that meant that there would be no beds for new patients.

INSKEEP: And have you hit that capacity yet, so far as you know?

DOROUGH: Well, fortunately, other regional hospitals started accepting COVID-19 patients. And so by virtue of being able to transfer patients to hospitals in Macon, Columbus, Tifton, the overcrowding has been somewhat abated. But as I understand it, all three ICU units have been repurposed and are providing beds for COVID-19 patients and have been for the last week or so.

INSKEEP: Mayor Dorough, have you been able to trace this outbreak to a specific moment in Albany?

DOROUGH: Well, there are actually two articles. One appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last Friday. And Mr. Schrade wrote an article tracing it back to a funeral on February 28. We also - there was also an article in The New York Times on Sunday, which was (inaudible) excellent piece of journalism. But, you know, Mr. Inskeep, that really is not a concern for us right now. Our concern is what we can do to curb the spread of the virus. And of course, the infection is an issue for epidemiologists and to be addressed at a later date.

INSKEEP: OK. But you're in a situation now where it's obviously throughout the community. If I'm not mistaken, the National Guard is helping out in some way. What are they doing?

DOROUGH: Yes. We have a medic team at the hospital because, prior to the onslaught of the virus, our hospital, like many throughout the country, was understaffed with nurses. Numerous nurses - I think it was 24 to 30 - had to be taken out of rotation because they were exposed to the first patient who was admitted to the hospital on February 28 or March 1. And they had unprotected contact with this gentleman for five or six days because nobody, frankly, had any idea that they were dealing with a patient who had the coronavirus.

INSKEEP: What does this experience of your city suggest for other parts of the United States where people may think that because they're in a little smaller place or a more rural place that they might escape the effects of the pandemic?

DOROUGH: Well, Steve, that's a question I was hoping you'd ask me. You know, I just would encourage communities throughout the country to take advantage of what we did not have, and that's the time and opportunity to prepare for the virus. I mean, we were in a situation - when it initially came upon us on March 11, I was notified that a few people had tested positive for coronavirus at our hospital. I thought it was an anomaly. And then on the 17, our coroner announced that three people had died. And from that point on, it has just cascaded downward. I mean, what communities need to do is adopt and implement a contingency plan. They need to have access.

We have a shortage of ventilators. About 5% of the patients who have the virus apparently need mechanical breathing. There's a shortage of PPE. And what these experts talk about - (inaudible) I mean, flattening the curve, they need - we - communities need to do that to prepare to reduce the pressure on the ICUs. People all over the country should be sheltering in place because all the experts tell you, maintain social distancing. And that is probably the best advice. But unfortunately, people are not going to be receptive to those recommendations until somebody in their community is diagnosed with the virus. And quite frankly, that might be too late.

INSKEEP: Because by then, it will have spread unseen. Mayor, the president has now acknowledged that the national peak in deaths is coming in the next two to three weeks, according to government projections. In a few seconds, what have they told you the peak is going to be like locally? And when does that come locally?

DOROUGH: Well, Steve, we don't have an idea what - the people at FEMA (ph) are telling us is, we'll see the light at the end of the tunnel the first day that there are more discharges than admissions. And that hasn't happened yet. And...

(SILENCE)

INSKEEP: And...

DOROUGH: Hello?

INSKEEP: Yeah. I think we've kind of - maybe you've said the last word there. Mayor, thanks so much, really appreciate it.

DOROUGH: Oh, OK. Thanks, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Bo Dorough is mayor of Albany, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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