I-TEAM: Rural area west of Augusta now leads U.S. in new COVID-19 deaths

Published: May. 27, 2020 at 3:30 PM EDT
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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

COVID-19 deaths are decreasing across the country, but one small rural area of Georgia is now leading the nation in most new COVID-19 deaths over the past two weeks.

The New York Times now lists Milledgeville metropolitan area as one of the hardest-hit areas in the country by the virus. Hancock and Baldwin counties make up this area, which is about an hour west of Augusta.

Six nursing homes are located in this area. More than 40 patients have already died and nearly 300 patients and workers are positive. We also found the area has the least amount of intensive-care unit beds available in the entire state of Georgia.

Even the national news can’t ignore the stunning numbers coming out of Hancock and Baldwin counties. The area only represents half of a percentage of Georgia's total population, but we found it is currently leading the entire country in new COVID deaths over the last two weeks. The two counties make up the Milledgeville metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Data from the New York Times shows the death rate is doubling here every eight days, and it’s not slowing down, either. The data also shows new deaths are “still growing” there. That's significant because only two other areas in the United States are listed as still growing. Everywhere else shows deaths are flat or decreasing.

We first told you about the outbreak in Hancock County a few weeks ago. Data from the Georgia Department of Community Health shows as of Tuesday night, 18 patients have died at Sparta Health and Rehabilitation Center and four others have died at Providence Healthcare of Sparta/Sparta Health and Rehab. A total of 124 patients and workers are positive for the virus in a county made up of only 8,400 people. It's a county that is rural with a high African-American population and a high poverty rate -- all factors that have proven as high-risk for the coronavirus.

At four nursing homes in neighboring Baldwin County, nearly 20 have died and 150 patients and workers are positive.

Health officials remain concerned about those workers spreading the virus outside of the nursing homes and into the community.

Georgia College and State University is also located in Baldwin County with more than 7,000 students expected to return class in a matter of months.

Resources are tight there, too. The hospital closed in Hancock County years ago. The nearest hospital is about half an hour away. We found 77 percent of ICU beds in this region are full -- that’s more than double the percentage statewide. As of Wednesday, only nine critical care beds are available.

And it's more than the staff in Baldwin County. When you combine the counties, there are a total of 85 workers in county nursing homes positive for the virus. Officials at the health district worry that could quickly lead to community spread. That's why they're urging people to stay home even as the state of Georgia is reopening.​ Again, this is a college community, too. Although students are only doing online learning right now, their website says they hope to have students return to campus this fall.

Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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