‘Is this another death I’ll have to pronounce?’

Michael Fowler, Dougherty County coroner, on the reopening of Georgia
(Audra Melton for The Washington Post)

I’m always driving, going back-and-forth between nursing homes, the hospital, and the morgue. All these roads should be empty if you ask me. But now I see people out running errands, rushing back into their lives, and it’s like: “Why? What reason could possibly be good enough?” Sometimes, I think about stopping and showing them one of the empty body bags I have in the trunk. “You might end up here. Is that worth it for a haircut or a hamburger?”

About this series
Voices from the Pandemic is an oral history of covid-19 and those affected.

You start to think that way as a coroner, especially now. I get fed up. I know the governor told us we could go ahead and reopen in Georgia. I understand businesses are hurting and people need to work. But I see these folks out and about and I wonder: “Is this another death I’ll have to pronounce?”

My work never shut down. I’ve been busier than ever during all this. For six weeks now, I’ve been answering calls in the middle of the night, taking pictures at the scene, notifying families, trying to get those family members tested. We’ve had more deaths in the last month here in Albany than we normally have in six months. This is a small community, but we’re ground zero for what they call community spread. Our greatest strength has been turned against us. We’re close-knit, social people down here. We shake hands. We hug. We go to church and hold onto each other, and this virus takes advantage and keeps passing right along. Our hospital is full, and they’re opening up another emergency unit to create more space. We had 200 more people test positive just last week. We’ve got so many sick in Albany that they’re shipping some to Atlanta to find space. My cousin’s up there now on a vent with this virus, and it isn’t looking so good. Nothing’s looking so good. We’re right in the thick of fighting this thing, but all of the sudden this is the time to reopen? This is the moment for a tattoo or a trip to the gym?

I don’t believe in getting hysterical. It’s doesn’t do any good. This is a numbers-and-facts job. But we have numbers and facts that are screaming out by themselves.

I deliver an update to the town each week on the death toll. I put on a shirt and tie and a mask, and I go downtown to give a presentation. My whole refrain in this has been: “Let’s keep it below 100 deaths.” At first, people thought that number was impossibly high. Crazy. One hundred is a lot in a place where it seems like everybody knows just about everybody. But when I gave the update three weeks ago, we were at 49 deaths. The next week it was 67. Then 84. I gave my last presentation a few days ago, and we’d hit 102. By the time I got back to my office, the phone was ringing again, and within a few hours, we were at 107.

It’s been so bad for so long that some people here say they’re starting to lose count. Maybe so. But I never lose count. We have less than 90,000 people in this county, and close to 1,500 have already tested positive. All I do is keep counting.

I’d like to lie and say we were perfectly trained and prepared for something like this to hit — that all of us on the front lines in Albany were waiting and ready. I’m no rookie. I’ve counted and examined the dead and done forensics after all kinds of major disasters. I’ve had three back surgeries from moving bodies. You get your floods and your tornadoes down here in south Georgia. But we’re 30 miles from the nearest highway, and our airport has maybe two or three flights a day back-and-forth to Atlanta. You feel a little removed from what’s happening in China or Rome or even New York.

Coroner Michael Fowler had hoped to keep the coronavirus death toll in Albany, Ga., below 100. (Photos by Audra Melton for The Washington Post)

The first alarm started going off in Albany on March 15. It was evening time. I got a call at home about a new case, and I went out to the residence. This was a 43-year-old black female. At first, the process was routine. Usually, when the first responders are done, it’s my job to pronounce the death and take a look at the body. I take pictures, look for any medications, talk to the family, fill out the paperwork, and decide if we need to do an autopsy. Sometimes, the body gives away secrets. With an alcoholic, you might see a little clubbing of the fingers, and heart disease can show up as a swollen leg. But this time, I couldn’t see anything. There was no evidence of foul play or anything suspicious. I went out and talked to the family. I prayed with them a bit and then asked all my questions. I’m a pastor, and I like to put hands on people when we’re talking, listen to their concerns, really get to know them. This family kept repeating her symptoms: high fever, aches, coughing, lots of trouble breathing. It sounded straight out of what I’d been hearing on the news. I said: “Have you heard about the coronavirus? I think we better get her tested.”

It was a hunch, really. Right away, I had this bad feeling. There were 20 people coming and going in that house, grieving and paying their respects, and who knows how many of them were already infected. There was a rumor going around at that time that maybe black people couldn’t get this virus. We were dealing with all kinds of confusion and misinformation. Nobody in that home was wearing a mask or gloves or doing any social distancing. At that point, neither was I.

I sent her body to be tested, went home and tried to get back to sleep, but I got two more calls later that night. One was at a nursing home, and the other was in the ER. Same symptoms. Both suspected cases. In one night, we went from zero deaths up to three, and that’s how it’s been going ever since. It explodes outward in waves like a bomb. One person has it and goes to church, and pretty soon half the pew is testing positive. I console people on the death of their relative one week and end up pronouncing them the next.

I never thought this job could give me nightmares. I’ve been lucky that way, and it’s probably why I’ve lasted so long. I worked at a rubber factory here in town until it closed in 1986, and as part of the layoff, they offered a few of us free tuition to school for mortuary science. It started off as kind of a joke. I’d never seen or touched a dead body. They had us living in a funeral home in Atlanta, and that first night we got called to a wreck on I-20. A girl had flipped her car. It was a decapitation. We searched the highway with a flashlight, and after we finally found everything, I went home and I slept okay. That’s when I first starting thinking this must be what God wanted of me.

You see a lot of haunting things doing this work. I believe it has to be a calling. Most of the time, you’re seeing natural causes, but an average week might have homicides, suicides, drug overdoses, car crashes, child deaths, drowning. Bodies get cold and harder to move. Muscles start to stiffen. We had a flood come through and wash out more than 503 graves a while back, and I spent months sorting bones and skeletons. I’ve worked 23 international disasters, from a plane crash in Guam to the tsunami in Thailand to nine weeks sorting remains at the World Trade Center. I try not to remember individual cases. I do my examination and write down the circumstances and the cause of death, and then I tell myself: “Okay. It’s gone.” I pray on it and I move on. I trained myself to do that.

But what I’m learning lately is, it’s a lot harder when the body you’re zipping up is a face you know or a face of someone you love. I’ve lived here my whole life. At least 30 of these victims are people I knew by name or considered friends. Six of our preachers have died. Probably at least seven or eight more from church. Two neighbors. Three school friends. The probate judge who had the office next to mine at the courthouse. These are my contemporaries. I’m 62. We’ve had 36 people here die in their 60s, and at least a dozen more who were younger than that.

I try not to count down the days or make projections about when all of this is going to be over. The truth is, it’s starting to become routine. I always stand six feet away from the families. I always wear my space suit whenever I’m anywhere near a body. I always take off my clothes and have my wife spray me down with Lysol as soon as I get home. The chamber of commerce has gone ahead and given me a tractor trailer with shelves to store extra bodies, which I might need depending on how reopening goes and how many more cases we get.

The phone calls used to wake me up at all hours of the night. Now, I’m usually up waiting.

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