We see them every day. The new COVID-19 numbers for Georgia arrive at 3 p.m., and they are quickly shared across the state by news outlets and reporters.
Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of cases are reported, with dozens of lives reported lost every day. And that’s just in one state.
These are the numbers that dot headlines and lead news reports. But they are not the only numbers. And they don’t cover the millions of Georgians – all of us, really – who have been impacted in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re here to shine a light on those in need of it.
This is “The Ripple,” a look at the many ways the pandemic has taken a toll on overlooked and underserved communities across Georgia. This series could honestly be endless, because the effects are seemingly infinite.
11Alive will isolate and spotlight four key issues in four communities across the state: the looming eviction crisis, the impact on Hispanic and Latino communities, the plight of rural hospitals, and forgotten counties.
The knock at the door was an eviction notice
Denessa Moss heard a knock on the door. So did her 12-year-old son, Ayden.
He went out to check. He came back with a green sheet of paper with instructions from the Magistrate Court of Fulton County.
It was an eviction notice.
“I’m a single parent of three,” Moss said. “I have to show strength to them in a time of worrying and let them know everything’s going to be OK, even if, in my mind, I’m not sure.”
Moss grew up in metro Atlanta and moved to Alpharetta for what she calls “peace of mind.”
“It was a great place for the kids to run amok,” she explained.
However, she quickly realized she was part of an often-overlooked, but fast-rising, community in the suburbs.
“Most of the people here own homes, so, if you stay in an apartment, it’s a totally different world.”
It’s especially true during a pandemic.
Moss was furloughed in April. She’s one of nearly 4 million Georgians to file for unemployment since the COVID-19 pandemic. Now she’s one of thousands, in Fulton County alone, who have received papers for eviction.
“You start looking at all your essentials and things like that, and sometimes rent isn’t an essential,” she explained. “I hate to say that. I need it. I need my place to stay. But my kids need food, hot water, and different things like that more right now.”
If the plight of suburban renters is new for many, it’s a far too familiar concern for Doug Hooker, the Atlanta Regional Commission’s executive director.
“Last year alone, we had 150,000 eviction filings,” Hooker stated. “In a good economy, in a quote-unquote normal year, we had 150,000 eviction filings in the five core counties.”
Those counties are Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Clayton and Cobb. And while evictions have gone down in 2020, it’s only because of a moratorium in the federal CARES Act and, more recently, a halt in evictions ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the intent to “prevent the further spread of COVID-19.” That order expires at year’s end.
“Our estimate,” Hooker began, “is that 40 percent of regional households could be under the threat of eviction if nothing is done.”
“The CDC is basically protecting me from the government putting me out on the street,” Moss said flatly.
“It’s not stopping me from having to pay my rent. I’m still under contract with my landlord. I owe them rent,” she added. “Even when December 31st comes, then what? I have a mountain of debt, no foreseeable job, and three kids. It’s scary.”
Georgia was recently ranked by Eviction Lab among the worst states in the country for COVID-19-related renter protections.
Numerous regional groups, including the ARC, have banded together to raise an equity fund for those facing eviction or needing help with rent. The initiative is called Save Our Atlanta Region’s Residents, and Hooker knows it will not, on its own, solve the problem.
“I think what worries me the most is that, even if the community harnesses a lot of philanthropic support, the most that we can do is basically a finger in the dike,” he said.
In the meantime, renters like Moss wait and watch their debt continue to rise.
“I know I have to go through it,” she said. “I know I have to show my face. I just want to run. But where would I run to?”
‘Nineteen of us ended up getting infected.’
From the many lanes of I-75, the city of Dalton is a standard exurb with all the exurban Georgia hallmarks: Chick-fil-A, BP, Waffle House and more.
However, when crossing the railroad tracks, the language changes.
“You start seeing a lot of the carnicerias, taquerias, handwritten signs and colored signs,” described Dora Price, a Dalton resident.
Her family moved to the area in 1979, when she was 16 years old.
“I’m in the heart of the Hispanic community,” she said.
The community – tucked away, but vibrant – has been an ever-present thread in the fabric of Dalton.
“I would think that’s everybody’s dream,” Price said, “to belong to a community that you care about with a family that you love.”
That devotion is what ended up affecting – and infecting – so many in her own family. This past summer, Price’s mother, Rita Salazar, was in her last days.
Salazar had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure five years earlier, and, despite holding on for so long and remaining resolute in her determination, she could no longer stave it off. Price alerted family members, and they all came over to say their farewells.
“We were eating together around the table, talking, and doing what we weren’t supposed to do,” Price recalled. “We defied the recommendations of COVID protection.”
Within days, people started feeling symptoms. Within weeks, the virus spread between multiple family members.
“Nineteen of us ended up getting infected,” she said.
Most recovered, but Price’s little brother, Julio Salazar, has been on a ventilator since August.
“I miss them terribly,” Price said about her mother and little brother. “She’s gone, and he’s barely here.”
In Whitfield County, the Hispanic/Latino community makes up of 36% of the population and 52% of the cases of COVID-19, Georgia Department of Public Health data shows. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disparity can be found nationwide, in both adults and children.
“Most of our families are considered essential workers,” said Eva Rodriguez of the Latin American Association’s Dalton outreach center. She said many of them lost jobs “in hotels, in cleaning, maybe in agriculture.”
Dalton calls itself the “Carpet Capital of the World.” Many indoor jobs are done by Hispanic and Latino workers.
Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, across America, the Hispanic/Latino unemployment rate has increased 145% in 2020. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that many of them are more likely to live in multigenerational houses and have the highest uninsured rates of any racial or ethnic group. All of these create increased vulnerability to COVID-19.
Dr. Pablo Perez of the St. Joseph Clinic in Dalton said there is a disconnect and distrust in the healthcare system there. Perez pointed out the location of the county’s one testing facility: the health department parking lot.
“When you go to the health department, you have to pass the jail, and so there are a lot of issues with misinformation in our community,” Perez explained.
These issues, he said, are the results of years of public attacks from politicians.
“Our community has been attacked in a very negative way,” Perez elaborated. “They are the workforce of this community. They are the ones who sacrifice a lot and start small businesses. They never stopped working in the carpet industry and other industries. And despite all that, they’ve never been properly recognized for their contributions.”
Perez led efforts among community leaders in Dalton to set up COVID-19 testing locations in their neighborhoods, no identification necessary.
“Many things are getting back to normal, but we are trying to reinforce and remember that the virus is not going to go away,” Perez said. “We have to be together in this with the same message that we need to take care of each other to go through this pandemic.”
It’s a lesson Price continues to learn the hard way.
“The most improvement he has had is opening up his eyes,” she said about Julio, her brother. “It is not easy. I would not desire this on anybody, and I just pray for all the COVID victims, because there are many.”
‘The straw that broke the camel’s back’: Pandemic pushes hospital to close
Laura Wiggins can see the hospital from her street.
Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center is a five-minute walk, or a two-minute drive. That convenience, Wiggins said, saved her life.
Earlier this year, Wiggins said she was “presented with issues,” but wasn’t sure if they were serious.
“Had I not had [the hospital] here, I just probably would have thought it away, ‘I’m OK. It’s something else.’”
But it wasn’t, she said.
“I had just had a heart attack. Had it not been for our emergency room, I would not be alive today.”
Wiggins’ voice quavered when she told the story, because she knows what’s coming. Southwest Georgia Regional closed its doors Thursday, Oct. 22. It’s the first hospital in Georgia to close since the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the mayor of Cuthbert, where the hospital is located, “COVID was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Steve Whatley is both mayor of Cuthbert and chairman of the Randolph County Hospital Authority. During the early months of the pandemic, he said they were losing staff at an alarming rate.
“Our nursing [home] had 55 out of 75 test positive. We had to create negative pressure chambers in every room,” Whatley recalled.
If those challenges proved insurmountable, Whatley said, it’s because of years of financial struggle that left the hospital vulnerable.
“Rural medicine is different than urban medicine,” the mayor explained. “In a county with declining population, where it takes $4.5 million every year to operate an emergency room, at some point, you realize it’s not sustainable. Throw in a pandemic, and it’ll push you over the edge.”
With Southwest Georgia Regional closing the nearest ER to Cuthbert is in the town of Eufaula. That’s across state lines, in Alabama.
“It’s about 40 miles by the time you travel in across the line and then get into town,” said Nikki Bryant, who owns one of two pharmacies in Cuthbert.
“They may live on a dirt road, on a road that’s not paved. By the time the ambulance leaves here and goes out to the patient’s home in a remote area of the county and then has to transport the patient 50 miles to another facility, the chances of survival decrease the longer it takes,” she explained. “That time is gonna be valuable to their life.
Since 2010, nine rural hospitals in Georgia have closed or announced their closure, including two expected to close this fall, a Becker’s Healthcare report indicates. A recent study found 14, or 41%, at risk.
“I was raised in Richland, Georgia, and we lost our hospital about 10 years ago,” Bryant recalled. “The closing of that facility has devastated that city and the surrounding communities, much the way it will happen here.”
“We don’t have a Starbucks. We don’t have a Target. It’s very hard to attract providers to this community unless they’re from here,” she added.
She looks at the population she serves and sees many in poverty, many with comorbidities, and many who already don’t receive the healthcare they need.
“People have grown up in this area,” Bryant said. “They’re from here. Their families have lived here for generations. The people here are so grateful for anything that you do to go above and beyond to take care of them.”
Wiggins is among the grateful ones.
“I think the hard thing to know is that these doctors and physicians’ assistants have been here for so long,” she said. “I’m 100 percent worried about what might happen, and I don’t want to know what will happen.”
Wiggins then recalled that terrifying August night when convenience helped save her life.
“I do know that, because of them, I’m sitting here with you today,” she said.
COVID hotspot: The county with the most lives lost per capita
Hancock County lost its hospital nearly 20 years ago. The time since has been marked by economic struggle in a county that now ranks among the most impoverished in America.
Now, a drive through Broad Street in Downtown Sparta shows buildings that are abandoned or in all-around rough shape.
Adrick Ingram, the county’s coroner, knows it.
“When you ride downtown and see the way the buildings look, when you go through some communities and you see people who don’t really have a lot of hope because there are no jobs here, that’s a sign that we’ve been forgotten about,” Ingram described.
He grew up in the county and went to Hancock Central High School. He takes pride in his community and the tremendous relationships he has built with his neighbors countywide.
During the 11Alive interview downtown, nearly half a dozen residents interrupted to wish Ingram well. He painted a picture of a county with a good heart, despite difficult circumstances.
And now, it’s also known as an early COVID-19 hot spot. Data shows that since the beginning of the pandemic, Hancock County has been in the top 20 in Georgia for cases per capita. It has seen more lives lost per capita than any other county in the state – and, as late as early October, in the country, according to a New York Times COVID-19 tracking site.
“A lot of it has been contained to nursing homes, but a lot of it is people who have delivered themselves to the hospital and haven’t returned home,” Ingram said.
He said the effects of the pandemic have weighed on the community.
“Having to be in the midst of people who have died or are dying, all of those things add a huge level of stress, and I think you see that playing out in everyday lives of people,” he said.
At the height of the emergency, Governor Brian Kemp declared Hancock’s plight “a nursing home issue.” Ingram said the governor hasn’t been down.
“I think it’s because a large part of our voting base is Democrat,” he speculated. “And, you know, poor Black folks really don’t catch his attention.”
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Kemp referred to a recent press conference where the governor gave an update on COVID-19. However, it didn’t mention Hancock County once.
For Ingram, it’s a sign that the county, as usual, is being forgotten.
“COVID does create a situation, but again, there were so many situations leading up to this that could have turned on a light for someone,” Ingram said. “The hospital closed years ago. We only have two ambulances in our county, so God forbid you’re the third person that gets sick.”
“Without a vision, this is downtown. Broad Street is kind of what you get. It looks as if we don’t care, although I know a lot of people do,” Ingram added.
Karen West moved down with her husband a few years back. She’s known for plastering Broad Street’s abandoned buildings with sheets of paper that contain handwritten quotes about dreams.
West is the secretary of the Sparta-Hancock Historic Preservation Commission. She’s the project manager of DREAM Streets, the city and county’s effort to rebuild and revitalize downtown Sparta.
“In the 70s and 80s, this was a thriving downtown area,” West said. “Every parking space was filled on Saturday. There was all kinds of mom-and-pop stores throughout. That can happen again.”
West said she looks at rusty storefronts and sees the infrastructure for bistros and a microbrewery. She sees opportunities to incorporate residents – and particularly its teenagers and young adults – into job-creating pathways.
“You’ve got a community that’s aching for something to spend their money on locally,” West said. “It’s got good bones. It’s got wonderful people. It just needs a hand up, and people to believe in it.”
If you look closely around the county, you see grassroots efforts to help inform and empower. Ingram hosts weekly Zoom conversations on Facebook Live, whose initial objective was to educate people about COVID-19. Now it’s a forum for topics that affect the community, and it attracts several thousand viewers each week.
“Sometimes it seems so massive that you don’t know where to start,” Ingram said about his county’s struggles. “I think the first thing is to build hope and a vision for our community that’s different from how it looks now.”