This Georgia city beat back COVID-19. It wishes states would pay attention.

Why We Wrote This

Residents of rural Albany, Georgia, united to save their city from COVID-19. They say they have lessons for other Americans: Don’t think you’re immune, or that the virus only affects other kinds of people, in other cities, in faraway states.

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, left, speaks with Dr. Kathy Hudson, near right, and other hospital personnel while touring the temporary medical pod placed in Albany, Ga., on April 15, to help battle the coronavirus.

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Four months ago, Albany, Georgia, was rocked by COVID-19.

The small city of 75,000 people developed one of the most intense outbreaks of the coronavirus in the United States in the pandemic’s early days. Cases linked to several funerals held in late February and early March spread and overwhelmed Albany’s health care capacity, in one of the first known instances of a “super-spreader” event in the country.

At one point, Dougherty County had the fourth-highest infection rate in the world. But citizens banded together across racial lines, adopted preventive measures, and beat back the virus, say local leaders.

During a visit, Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey praised the community’s response. She said that the city “already knows the lessons we want everyone to follow through the state.”

It’s unfortunate that states such as Texas, Florida, and Arizona largely didn’t heed the important lessons taught by Albany and other concentrated outbreaks, says city commissioner Demetrius Young. Those include: Simple health measures can corral COVID-19 spread, and humility is important. The coronavirus doesn’t know red states from blue, Mr. Young points out.

“I think we are in a good position ... because of the way that we came together,” says Commissioner Young.

Four months ago, Albany, Georgia, was rocked by COVID-19.

The small city of 75,000 people – and surrounding Dougherty County, a rural area in the state’s southwest – developed one of the most intense outbreaks of coronavirus in the U.S. in the pandemic’s early days. Cases linked to several local funerals held in late February and early March spread and overwhelmed Albany’s health-care capacity, in one of the first known instances of a “super-spreader” event in the country.

At one point, Dougherty County had the fourth-highest infection rate in the world. National Guard medical teams descended on the area to aid in what became a Southern equivalent of New York City’s epic fight. Over 150 people died.

But citizens banded together across racial lines, adopted preventive measures, and beat back the virus, say local leaders. The county’s rolling number of daily average cases dropped from a peak of 55 in late March to about 3 in late June.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Cases have ticked up some lately as Georgia’s state outbreak has worsened. They’re still far below March’s highs, however. And Demetrius Young, an Albany City commissioner, believes that having lived through one out-of-control outbreak, area citizens will be better prepared to rally together and prevent another.

“Right now, we are poised to handle probably more of a surge than any other place that didn’t get hit like we did,” says Mr. Young, whose mother, Mary Young-Cummins, was a political legend in the region.

It’s unfortunate that states such as Texas, Florida, and Arizona, largely didn’t heed the important lessons taught by Albany and other concentrated outbreaks, he says. Those include: simple health measures can corral COVID-19 spread, and humility is important. Don’t think you’re immune, and that the virus only affects other kinds of people, in other cities, in far-away states.

The singularly American failure to contain the virus and reopen its economy can in part be traced to America’s reluctance to learn from its own experience, and to distrust rooted in politicization. But coronavirus doesn’t know red states from blue, Mr. Young points out.

“People kind of thought, ‘Well, that’s happening over here but not happening over here.’ But the way this virus works is that the water is still going to reach you,” says Mr. Young. “It is going to find its way there. That’s the nature of it.”

Birthplace of a movement

The birthplace of the Albany Movement, a desegregation and voters’ rights coalition founded in 1961 that set the stage for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, later protests, Albany is a majority-black city, largely segregated, where power and wealth is still concentrated in the white community.

It is part of the Black Belt, a term popularized by Booker T. Washington to refer to the fertile crescent of land running through 11 Southern states. Today, 32% of residents live in poverty – compared with 12% nationally. Like so many cities and towns across the U.S., its neighborhoods range from the neat, gated streets of the northern suburbs, to the disinvestment and decay of a southeastern area of the city known as Darkside.

And when the virus hit, the Black population – beset by chronic economic and health disparities, including lack of access to health care – suffered the most. Ninety percent of those who died in Albany were Black.

At the time of the initial outbreaks, much of the city’s political structure, including its mayor, were somewhat dismayed at the public health information coming from the level of the state, says Mr. Young.

But when cases rose sharply in March only the need for a concerted community-wide response mattered.

“We were suddenly in a situation that demanded drastic measures,” he says.

Michael Fowler is a local pastor who also serves as county coroner. At the height of the outbreak he “had the toughest job in the country,” according to Governor Kemp.

One thing Dr. Fowler says he learned from that experience was to move fast.

“I think we jumped on it by offering daily information about modes of transmission and death rates, and we said people have to stand together, and many of them did come together,” he says.

They learned that the entire community needs to adopt simple prevention measures to beat back the virus and send the case curve downward.

“It can’t just be a few people wearing masks,” he says.

During a visit two weeks ago to Albany, Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey praised the community’s response to its initial outbreak. She said that the city “already knows the lessons we want everyone to follow through the state.”

The state may need to pay attention to Albany’s example because coronavirus cases in Georgia have swung sharply upward since the end of May.

On June 1, Georgia’s seven-day rolling average of new cases was 620. On July 20, it was 2,979.

To Albany’s political leaders this surge means they can’t rest on their laurels. They’ve fought one big battle but the war isn’t over.

“I think we keep doing what we’re doing,” says Dr. Fowler. “There might be another surge, or a new virus. We’ve got to learn to live with it.”

“People took it seriously”

Right now, Georgia politics is riven by a dispute between Governor Kemp, a conservative Republican, and Atlanta’s Democratic mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, over masks and other preventive measures.

On July 10, Mayor Bottoms – a potential vice-presidential pick for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden – issued an ordinance returning Atlanta to phase 1 of its reopening. Among other things the ordinance mandated the wearing of face masks in public.

Governor Kemp has filed suit and is requesting an injunction that would bar Ms. Bottoms from enforcing her order, or talking about her alleged authority to do so. Georgia’s cities are barred from issuing coronavirus rules that are more restrictive than those promulgated by the governor, according to the suit.

Albany, which has a white mayor, has not tried to override the governor on masks. But it doesn’t have to, says Commissioner Young.

“It was so bad here that we don’t need a mandatory thing,” says Mr. Young. “Everybody is masking up pretty well. The businesses responded. We were in a good position where people took it seriously.”

Having experienced the pandemic firsthand, local restaurateurs have gone beyond state standards and designed a set of local standards and restrained openings. During the initial surge local nonprofits popped up to procure personal protective equipment so small business owners could find and afford protections for their staff and customers. (Eventually, local government stepped in with grants to help pay for those supplies.)

Mr. Young has said Governor Kemp should not intervene with local governments on the choices they make to protect their communities, and that if things really get worse, a mask mandate might be beneficial. But he adds that he realizes that there are strong feelings on the mask issue, on both sides.

“And you have to factor that in,” he says.

Albany’s experience will help it deal with the continued pandemic, according to Mr. Young. He says the COVID-19 surge also highlighted racial and economic disparities in the area, since the Black community was hit so hard. The city council has begun a plan to improve health outcomes across the region, in part to improve community pandemic defenses.

“I think we are in a good position ... because of the way that we came together. And I also think things are very hopeful ... in terms of what this virus has exposed,” says Commissioner Young.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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