Three years since COVID-19; Dr. James Black and Dougherty County Coroner Michel Fowler share their experience from the frontlines

Dougherty County was once the 3rd highest globally for COVID deaths, Dr. Black and Coroner Fowler reflect

ALBANY, GA- Three years ago in March of 2020, the COVID-19 Pandemic flipped the world upside down. In Dougherty County, nearly everything was closed except two places: Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and the coroner’s office.

Overwhelming is the word both Dr. James Black of Phoebe Putney and Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler described their pandemic experience.

The first confirmed COVID test in the United States surface in January of 2020.

Dr. James Black, Phoebe’s Director of Emergency Services and current Interim Chief Medical Officer says “Early on, we couldn’t actively diagnose or treat patients because we didnt know what it was. We thought it was the flu, but patients werent testing positive for it. We certainly had cases where people in respiratory distress and high fevers would come it and all of a sudden get in rough shape.”

On March 2nd, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp confirmed the first COVID cases in the state.

“It was around the second week of march when they started coming in… first one, second one and thats when the dam just bursted and we were seeing higher and higher numbers everyday” Black explained.

Meanwhile, the journey down a very long and dark road began at the coroner’s office.

“We got our first positive case March 15th. I had three deaths, all three positive with covid on March 15th. Since then, we were just running. EMS, First responders, law enforcement, everyone was just running trying to decide what too do, what needed to be done and the safety precautions we needed to take” Fowler said.

Both Black and Fowler say the virus was brought to Dougherty County by an Atlanta man who attended two funerals in Albany. From there, it spread like wild fire and life in the Good Life City soon became anything, but good.

Dr. Black says “We were actually ranked third in the world for COVID deaths in March. We were right behind Wuhan, China, the Lombardy region in Italy then Albany, Georgia. The next month I think New York took our place at third and we became fourth.”

Because of this immediate surge in COVID deaths, Phoebe was running low on supplies and staff, very quickly.

“Early on you know getting help from some of our neighbors was challenging because everybody thought this was an Albany, Georgia thing. But once people realized we were early on and not the only ones, as COVID came and stayed we began getting help. So I think Early on we really just felt like we were kind of isolated and weren’t getting the support we wanted too. But quickly that support came and we will always be grateful to those who supported us during such a difficult time” says Black.

With over 600 COVID related deaths, Albany attracted national attention, making Coroner Fowler the face of national headlines such as Times Magazine, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

“We had to get a mobile morgue here.. we didn’t have enough space to put the remains of loved ones.. and at one point we had 86 deaths in one month. So we just had so many people dying it was unheard of” says Fowler.

In his career, Fowler has responded to horrific disasters such as 9/11, the Thailand tsunami, major earthquakes and more. However, he says this disaster was different than the others.

“You can work with natural disasters… you can get to higher ground, you can dodge some things, but this we didn’t know because it was invisible. We couldn’t see it and we didn’t know how to fight it. For a long time we didn’t even know how to recognize it. It changed so much in the beginning stages.. it was hitting family members and friends that were dying, so it’s more personal than any disaster I have worked.”

Dr. Black says the pandemic effected the medical field differently as well.

“Family members would bring their loved ones into the hospital and they wouldn’t get the chance to see them again except by video chat and sometimes it would progress so quickly that they would have to be put on a vent and eventually succumb to their injuries. It was a very sad and difficult time for healthcare workers because we were all so focused on being there for our patients well being, we hardly ever reflected on our own. But the staff here at Phoebe got through by leaning on one another, never giving up hope and constantly reminding each other on why we chose this job.. which is to help sick people get better” Black explains.

Both Fowler and Black say that their home lives changed drastically during the Pandemic, too.

“I was afraid to come home because I knew how much COVID I had been around.  When I’d go into families houses we were in full suits, goggles, masks, gloves, everything. Then we disposed of it once we left the house.But I was still worried I’d give it to my family” says Coroner Fowler. “Eventually, when I got home my wife made me take off my shoes, clothes everything before coming in the house. We sanitized everything, all the time. We didn’t want to give anything to our kids or grandkids. Fortunately, I never got COVID and thank God I still have never gotten COVID to this day, but it could have been a different story if we didn’t take the precautions we did for nine months.”

But after months of staff members resigning, hundreds of people dying, being isolated from their families, and working for days straight… in December of 2020 the development of vaccines brought a light at the end of the tunnel.

Dr. Black says “We were so hopeful in the vaccine and how it was going to effect the course of the disease. At the time it was difficult to get too happy because out of nowhere a new surge or spike in cases would come. So we were cautiously optimistic, but now we are extremely grateful.”

Black explained that there are still many lasting deficits from COVID that not only effect Phoebe, but the entire medical field as a whole.

“Nationwide, there were a lot of people that left healthcare. Especially young people were just got out of nursing school and/or medical school. People who were set to retire, retired early. Everyone was working very long hours with a large mental and physical work load. The Pandemic caused a lot of people to leave the field and fewer people want to come work in it. So, we’re going to be seeing a lot of shortages in the next few years not just with physicians but nurses, therapists and others alike.”

Despite the traumatic months prior to vaccines, he believes there are a few positives to come from it.

Black says, “we saw the community grow very very close. Locally here I think we formed a very good bond with us and our civic leaders in our communities. One that I haven’t seen in my 18 years here. And so we saw the community here grow very very close.. and help to not only take care of our patients but taking care of each other as a community and protect each other. Again we learned a lot medically, making a lot of changes around the hospital and the way we care for patients and even ourselves. We endured more suffering here than a lot of other communities did, and I think out of it we gained a different appreciation of how valued our family and friends are and spending time with our loved ones. It was a tough lesson learned but i think we can pull some small nuggets of good from it”.