St. Mary’s and Piedmont Athens Regional jointly serve an area that encompasses 16 additional counties, and more than 650,000 residents. Like hospitals in small and mid-sized cities across the South, they have seen their patient network expand as rural hospitals elsewhere in the state close down. And now, Athens is facing a big test. “If you add a pandemic, health systems serving these communities are exponentially more strained,” said Grace Bagwell Adams, a public health professor at the University of Georgia and director of the Athens Wellbeing Project, which assesses community health needs…

The coronavirus storm already is rapidly gathering in Athens and surrounding areas. At noon on April 11, the Georgia Department of Public Health recorded 82 cases of Covid-19 in Athens-Clarke County and 36 cases in next door Oconee County. Across the 17 counties served by the two Athens hospitals, the DPH reported 334 cases, up from 200 at the middle of the week. A model from the University of Texas based on data from earlier in the month gave Athens-Clarke County a 100 percent chance of epidemic infection, and its 16 neighboring counties probabilities ranging from 55 percent to 99 percent.

Those numbers mean the two hospitals here aren’t just getting ready for local patients. “As we look at an Athens surge, we have to look at 15, 16, 17 counties that are being served by our facilities,” Carter said. Beyond that, though, Carter doesn’t know what to expect, comparing the surge in infections to tracking the landfall of a gathering hurricane while it’s still early. “There is no consensus where it will turn.”