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2 coronavirus deaths bring Georgia's statewide toll to 3
Volunteer Michaela Lawrence hands out meals to families with students at Hilsman Middle School in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Meals will be handed out each morning from 8:00a.m. to 10:00p.m. at Hilsman Middle School in Oglethorpe Elementary as well as others delivered by bus due to caronavirus. - photo by Associated Press

ALBANY — Hospital officials said Wednesday that two patients with the new coronavirus have died in a southwest Georgia county, one of the hardest-hit areas outside metro Atlanta from the global outbreak.

Georgia Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said she could not immediately confirm whether the new deaths reported in Dougherty County were linked to the virus. 

If the fatalities are ultimately confirmed by state officials, that would raise Georgia's death toll to three from the global pandemic that is  reshaping daily life  across the country.

Officials at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany said two patients had died there from the virus. 

"The entire Phoebe Family is saddened to learn of the first COVID-19 deaths in our area," Dr. Steven Kitchen, the Albany hospital's chief medical officer, said in a news release. "Unfortunately, more deaths are likely to occur, and we will certainly see more positive cases as we receive more test results."

Kitchen later told a news conference that the Albany hospital has more than 20 patients requiring critical care for confirmed or suspected coronavirus infections. He said more than 300 people who had been tested for infection were awaiting results. And he praised the hospital's staff for bravely facing a potential crisis 

"Their experience and morale are exceedingly high," Kitchen said. "But I will tell you they are tired. It has taxed our facility and it has taxed our personnel." 

The patients who died were both in their 60s and had underlying medical conditions, said Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Georgia has 197 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported Wednesday. State officials reported Georgia's first death from the virus last week. 

Dougherty County officials say they have evidence an unspecified number of infections are linked to two recent funerals that involved two churches and a funeral home. The county has reported seven confirmed infections, according to George health authorities. 

Local officials said they have ordered churches in Dougherty County to halt all services — including Sunday worship, Bible studies and weddings — until further notice. Meanwhile, funeral homes in the county agreed to hold only graveside services with attendance limited to family members.

 "I recognize this is a very trying time and that people naturally want to congregate at church," Christopher Cohilas, chairman of the Dougherty County Commission, told a news conference. "We know firsthand that has been the predominant way this virus has spread. And I want to emphasize it has spread through this community very, very quickly." 

A large outdoor music festival in Atlanta has been postponed until the fall, joining Savannah's St. Patrick's Day parade, the Masters golf tournament and other large-scale events sidelined by coronavirus concerns.

Organizers of the Shaky Knees Festival on Wednesday said that event featuring headliners the Black Keys, the Strokes and Smashing Pumpkins is now set for Oct. 16-18. 

State prison officials said in a news release Wednesday that they'd been notified that an employee at one of the state's 34 prisons had tested positive for the virus. They declined to elaborate, citing security and privacy restrictions, but said the person last reported to work Thursday.

The Department of Corrections said there were no known infections among the state's prisoners.

One issue for health care workers and others who still need to be on the job is child care, with more than 800 of Georgia's 4,000 licensed child care centers reporting they have closed. The YMCA of Metro Atlanta and the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning announced Wednesday that 17 YMCA child care centers would be converted to solely caring for children of health care workers, with most sites having room for 80 to 150 children. The department said Child Care Network, a chain based in Columbus, has offered to provide care in other parts of Georgia for essential staff. 

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