|The Dougherty County Courthouse in Albany, GA (law.com)|
A county courthouse in Albany, Georgia, became a hot spot for the coronavirus -- leading to the death of one judge -- and officials attribute the outbreak to "Juror Zero." From a report at law.com titled "Juror Zero: How COVID-19 Spread Through the Dougherty County Courthouse":
When more than 100 people were summoned to the Dougherty County Courthouse as potential jurors for a highly-publicized local murder trial in early March, no one knew one of them would become one of the first county residents to test positive for COVID-19.
Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said the juror who became ill during the trial last month was the first person known to suffer from symptoms later diagnosed as the coronavirus while in the county courthouse.
The juror was one of 14 panelists, including two alternates, who began hearing the “stand your ground” case of local moving company owner Jazzy Huff on March 9, according to Edwards and the county’s clerk of court, Evonne Mull.
That infected juror potentially exposed the entire jury pool, the prosecutor, the defendant and his lawyer, court bailiffs, the judge and her court reporter and other court personnel.
Mull said she sent letters to 110 people in the jury pool notifying them they could have been exposed to the coronavirus after the juror was hospitalized. Mull said she is not aware of any members of the jury pool becoming ill or testing positive for the virus. But, she said, testing is still largely limited to people with severe symptoms who are reporting to the hospital.
The juror has since recovered and been released from the hospital, she said.
There were few clear signs in the courtroom that the juror was having problems:
Edwards said he didn’t recall the juror displaying any physical symptoms that she was sick during the trial. “In my normal courtroom process, I make close contact with the jury box,” he said. “There was no noticeable coughing that I recall.”
On March 11, the trial’s third day, the juror sent a note to the presiding judge, Denise Marshall, saying she was feeling ill, the district attorney recalled. “The judge determined that we would see if she could press on at least for the rest of the day, which she did,” Edwards said. “She was in the [jury] box with everybody else.”
The following day, the juror was in the hospital with pneumonia and tested positive for coronavirus, Edwards said.
The virus' path through the courthouse was quick and devastating:
McCoy said he had already directed county department managers and elected officials to implement social distancing practices and encouraged telecommuting before the juror became ill. The courthouse also was thoroughly disinfected after the juror’s diagnosis. “We have been vigilant,” McCoy said.“But these were people who had high contact with the public.”
Despite their efforts, staff throughout the courthouse began testing positive for the virus. One of them, Dougherty County Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson—died April 1 after testing positive for the virus the previous week. Stephenson’s husband, Dougherty State Court Judge John Stephenson, is also ill with the virus.
“Our community is in mourning, not only from the public losses, but also the nonpublic figures who are lost,” said McCoy. “I think everyone should strongly consider closing their courts down,” he added. “Every day you are interacting with the public and carrying out your court functions, you’re putting yourself, your staff and the public at risk, especially if you are not able to provide personal protective equipment.”
The virus hit Albany so swiftly that, by the end of March, the city with an estimated population of 75,000, ranked second in the nation and fourth in the world for the number of reported coronavirus cases per capita. On Monday, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital reported 43 deaths tied to the coronavirus, with 1,405 people testing positive.
The juror was one of the first reported coronavirus cases in Albany. The same day she notified the court she was ill, Phoebe Putney reported its first presumptive coronavirus case. That patient, who was “visiting southwest Georgia,” was treated and transferred to a metro Atlanta hospital “to be closer to their home,” hospital authorities said in a March 11 news release.