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Doctor in small Georgia city says coronavirus spread through community before hospital staff found out what it was

Coronavirus spread through a southwest Georgia city for 10 days in March before hospital staff were told what was filling their wards with desperately sick people, a doctor told Congress on Thursday.

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Amanda Watts
Steve Almasy, CNN
CNN — Coronavirus spread through a southwest Georgia city for 10 days in March before hospital staff were told what was filling their wards with desperately sick people, a doctor told Congress on Thursday.

"We were shocked by its abrupt entrance into our lives, and the virus had been spreading quietly for 10 days, and very quickly," Dr. Shanti Akers, a pulmonary critical care physician at Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, testified.

"What started as one case spread like wildfire," she added. "We filled ward after ward until we had at least five floors dedicated to the care of these patients."

The first cases hit the hospital in Albany, a city of about 72,000 people, in the last week of February and the first week of March, but no one knew it, the doctor testified.

It wasn't until March 10 that the hospital was informed they had treated a positive coronavirus case, she said.

"Those early days were scary and intense. We knew so little about it, and how it was spread or how to treat it," Akers told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. The panel heard about the impact of the pandemic on medical workers, first responders, grocery store workers and others.

The stress of dealing with the new disease was heightened when they went through six months of personal protective equipment in one week.

"We were -- and still are -- forced to make that supply stretch. This time took a toll on all of us," Akers said.

The doctor said she spent months not seeing her children awake because of the time required to treat patients. She limited her contact with her husband and kids because she was worried her PPE hadn't fully protected her.

"And I updated my will," she said.

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A flood of cases

The crisis in Dougherty County began after two funerals were held in late February and March. There were also a downtown festival, a big road race and religious services that were still crowded.

The cluster of cases began emerging shortly after a 67-year-old man tested positive for the virus. The man traveled from Atlanta to attend one of the funerals and was hospitalized in Albany during his trip, Scott Steiner, the chief executive officer of Phoebe Putney Health System, told CNN in April.

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

About 20 people who attended at least one of the funerals contracted the virus

Others were members of the same churches, Steiner said.

On March 19, local officials declared a state of emergency, banning community gatherings of more than 10 people after four coronavirus-related deaths were reported. A stay-at-home order followed a few days later.

Four days later, Gov. Brian Kemp placed a limit on gatherings statewide. He issued a shelter-in-place order on April 2. At that time there were about 4,800 cases In Georgia and 154 deaths, according to the state department of health.

Now there are more than 40,400 cases and at least 1,754 deaths.

As of Thursday, Dougherty County has had 1,719 coronavirus cases -- 1,912.02 positive tests per 100,000 residents. It's one of the highest rates in the state.

The 141 deaths in the county is topped only by Fulton County and the 396 hospitalizations is behind only four more populous counties in the Atlanta area.

'The virus did not discriminate'

During the initial days of the outbreak, hospital staff struggled to keep patients alive, with no guidance about therapies that might be helpful, Akers said.

There is no cure for Covid-19 and experimental treatments are in the early stages of testing.

"Some patients died no matter what we did, and we could not change that outcome," Akers said. "It did not matter if they were young or old. This virus did not discriminate."

Workers mourned the loss of patients who took their last breaths without family there. And they cheered for the ones who made it and got to go home, she said.

Akers told the committee that they still need more protective equipment and there needs to be more coordination on a state and federal level.

Georgia has been criticized for some missteps on its coronavirus website, including being one of at least four states that combined data from different types of tests.

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