April 8, 2020 11:29 PM EDT

Michael Fowler, 62, is a coroner in Dougherty County, Ga.

I’m a coroner in Dougherty County, Ga., the county that currently has the most coronavirus-related deaths in the state. We’re located about two and a half hours south of Atlanta, and my office used to average one death a day. But now, I’ve had to bring in another part-time person just to keep on top of our cases. The pandemic has turned the city upside down. More than 50 people have died. A majority of the dead are female, and a majority of the dead are African-American.

Christopher Morris—VII for TIME

The virus started spreading at a couple of funerals. Those individuals who attended the funerals went back into their neighborhoods, homes, and churches, and more people were infected. It hit like a bomb. Within a week, three people died in one day. All three had the same symptoms, so we had them tested and all came back positive. Ever since then, every day there’s someone dying with this virus. Recently, five people died in one day. I’m getting called different times of the night to go out and work a case, to try to figure out what happened prior to that person dying. Did the person have a fever? Were they coughing? Were they aching? Were they having difficulty breathing? So many phone calls are coming in now that it’s overwhelming. I’m getting very little sleep now.


Michael Fowler is the coroner of Dougherty County, Ga. The county had the most coronavirus-related deaths in the state as of April 8, 2020.
Christopher Morris
Fowler responds to resident found dead alone in his apartment.
Christopher Morris—VII for TIME

I’ve worked 23 major disasters, from the World Trade Center to the tsunami in Thailand to Hurricane Maria. A tornado, you can brace for it and get to shelter. A flood, you can get on higher ground. But a disaster like this—it’s different. It’s hidden. You don’t know if you’re stepping on the virus or touching a door handle that someone touched after coughing into their hand. You just don’t know, and that’s what makes it so bad.

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While responding to a call reporting a death, a call came through regarding another death up the road at an assisted living facility.
Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
An empty street in Albany, Ga.
Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
Fowler at Riverside Cemetery in Albany, Ga., on April 5.
Christopher Morris—VII for TIME

Now, you pray. You got to pray. And we use universal caution when we go out on a scene. Now you’ve got to go in full gear, gloves, masks, head covering. I’m like a space man walking in there. But you’d rather be safe than sorry when you could bring some kind of virus back to your family. —As told to Lissandra Villa

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