I-TEAM: COVID-19 deaths rising in rural county near Augusta

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Thursday, May 21, 2020
News 12 at 6 O’Clock/NBC at 7

The death toll is growing in Hancock County due to COVID-19. (Source: GA DPH)

HANCOCK COUNTY, GA (WRDW/WAGT) -- The death toll continues to rise in a small rural community just west of Augusta. Hancock County now ranks fourth in the state for most COVID-19 deaths per capita. Seventeen patients have died in one nursing home alone.

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Hancock County is a COVID-19 hotspot. We first told you last week it ranked sixth in the state for cases per capita. Six additional patients have died at Sparta Health and Rehabilitation.

Hancock now has 183 deaths per 100,000 people. The death rate for Richmond County is eight per 100,000 people -- to put the severity of the Hancock County’s outbreak into perspective.

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“It makes me feel bad because we all know what is going on and the severity of it,” Hancock County citizen Lille Swinney said.

Swinney isn’t the only concerned citizen of Hancock County. another resident posted on Facebook last night, saying “people have lost parents, siblings, and other close relatives and friends. It has been an alarming rate for this small town!”

The most deaths have happened at Sparta Health and Rehabilitation. Seventeen have died. Fifty-two patients and 20 workers are positive with the virus. We looked at state data and found the nursing home now ranks seventh out of the state’s 378 nursing homes for most COVID-19 deaths.

At Providence of Sparta, another area nursing home, one person has died. Twenty-seven patients and 11 staff members have the virus.

The virus has also made its way into Hancock County state prison. Four prison workers have it. Two others have recovered. The numbers could be higher. Prison workers self-report if they test positive. The Georgia Department of Corrections says an additional worker self-reported and that case has yet to show up in the data.

“It is just a lot of gatherings, no masks and no gloves, and even people who work in stores -- no masks or gloves,” EMS director Mario Chapple said.

Chapple is urging the citizens of Hancock County to shelter in place despite the rest of the state reopening.

“Wear your mask, PPE, go to the grocery store and try to go back in, because our community has been real, we have been infected,” Chapple said.

Hancock County is the type of community the CDC warns is most vulnerable to COVID-19. More than 70 percent of the population is African-American and 30 percent live in poverty. The hospital closed there years ago.

With only 60 percent of the families with access to broadband, telemedicine is not much of an option.

We spoke with the public information officer with the North Central Health District this afternoon. He is very concerned about people gathering over Memorial Day. Although the majority of the cases are in the nursing homes, more than 30 of the cases involve staff members who still have to go to the store and run errands in town.

Local municipalities cannot enact stricter orders than the state, so Hancock County officials can only urge people to stay home and not order them.

Sparta Health, meanwhile, sent us a statement in regard to Hancock County.

The novel virus, SARs-CoV-2 and the resultant disease, COVID-19 has challenged our nation and state in many ways. As you know, the communities within Hancock county have been impacted by a significant outbreak of COVID-19. This has challenged health care services in these areas, including Sparta Health & Rehabilitation. Through the steadfast dedication of the staff and the support of the local community, including the local DPH, Sparta Health & Rehabilitation is steadily moving forward in the fight against the virus. The center has been and will continue to follow the guidance provided by the CDC and DPH in order to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Providing care to the patients served is the main focus. To maintain this focus, the administrator of Sparta Health & Rehabilitation is unavailable for interviews.

Many have recognized that the severity of the COVID-19 disease disproportionately affects the frail, elderly populations. Within the skilled nursing center setting, close communal living is common as many patients are in semi-private rooms. Sparta Health & Rehabilitation continues to maintain numerous measures to help protect the health of patients and staff, including:

· Restricting non-essential visitation

· Reinforcing CDC guidelines for hand hygiene and environmental cleanliness

· Reviewing infection control policies and action plans with staff

· Screening health care workers prior to reporting for duty and not permitting staff with respiratory symptoms to work

· Suspending group activities and communal dining to support distancing between patients

· Continuing to be in communication with the Medical Director, as well as with the local and state health departments for guidance.

Thank you for this opportunity. As an added note, Sparta Health & Rehabilitation wishes to recognize the unfaltering efforts of the staff as they continue to fight this virus while providing care and comfort to the patients of Sparta Health & Rehabilitation.

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