The South's Fight Against a World Pandemic in Small Town Georgia

PHOTO BY D. PAUL GRAHAM.

Albany, Georgia is not a town accustomed to the national spotlight. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit home, resulting in one of the worst outbreaks in this country, that spotlight burned bright. But it turns out the spotlight may have been the disinfectant this town needed.

On February 28, Albany, Georgia was like any other small Southern city. The churning waters of the Flint River rolled through a town that prides itself on its tight-knit community, one where the whispers of a far-off disease still weren’t much cause for concern. On February 28, COVID-19 was a Chinese problem. It was an Italian problem. It was a New York City problem. These are not the problems that penetrate the sanctity of Albany. That very day, Governor Brian Kemp had formed his Coronavirus Task Force via Executive Order, but that was just in case it ever became an Atlanta problem. An Augusta problem. A Savannah problem. Never an Albany problem.

Photo by d. paul graham.

Albany, Georgia Mayor Bo Dorough.

 “From the time we were in The Washington Post, every TV station was calling, everyone wanted an interview. I was just running exhausted.” — Albany Mayor Bo Dorough

That was February 28. On February 29, a family gathered to mourn the loss of Andrew Jerome Mitchell, a retired janitor and one of 10 siblings. Crowding into, and overflowing out of, M.L. King Memorial Chapel, some 200 people gathered in remembrance. They shared stories. They cried on each other’s shoulders. The term social distancing never once entered their minds. Without a thought of transmission vectors they held hands and stood face to face. And among them, there was one who had unwittingly infected everyone in the crowd. There was one person who had brought COVID-19 to Albany.

Over the next two weeks, the virus would run roughshod through Albany, spring boarding off of each of those infected at the funeral to penetrate nearly everywhere in this close-knit community. “The first day, March 15, we had three who all had the same symptoms,” said Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler. “I had all three tested, and I knew we had a problem from that day forward.”

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photo by d. paul graham.

Howard Fields' Promised Land Funeral Home drive-thru.

photo by d. paul graham.

Former New York City Mortuary Officer Michael Fowler holding his Time Magazine cover.

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