State officials confirmed Wednesday that two COVID-19 patients have died in southwest Georgia, one of the hardest-hit areas outside metro Atlanta from the global outbreak. That brought the statewide death toll to three.

The news came as state Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican, announced he had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness, sending Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan and Georgia’s other 55 state senators into self-quarantine. Duncan, a Republican, presides over the Senate.

The two women who died in Dougherty County were ages 42 and 69, and both had underlying medical conditions, the Georgia Department of Public Health said in a news release.

Georgia has 197 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported Wednesday. State officials reported Georgia’s first death from the virus last week.

The new deaths in Dougherty County were first reported by Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, where doctors are bracing for conditions to worsen.

“Unfortunately, more deaths are likely to occur, and we will certainly see more positive cases as we receive more test results,” Dr. Steven Kitchen, the Albany hospital’s chief medical officer, said in a news release.

Kitchen later told a news conference that the Albany hospital has more than 20 patients requiring critical care for confirmed or suspected coronavirus infections. He said more than 300 people who had been tested were awaiting results. And he praised the hospital’s staff for bravely facing a potential crisis

“Their experience and morale are exceedingly high,” Kitchen said. “But I will tell you they are tired. It has taxed our facility and it has taxed our personnel.”

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Beach began exhibiting symptoms on March 10 and attended the Senate as late as Monday, when the General Assembly met in a one-day special session to ratify Gov. Brian Kemp’s declaration of a public health emergency. The regular session was suspended Friday because of the disease threat,

Beach told bystanders Monday that he wasn’t feeling well. He said in a statement Wednesday that he was tested for the virus Saturday after experiencing a fever and a cough, but felt better with medication and attended Monday.

“Today, however, my test came back positive,” Beach said. He said he’s at home and is following his physician’s direction to not go to a hospital unless he has trouble breathing.

The leaders of the Senate majority and minority also advised Wednesday that “members of the public who frequent the capitol should use their best judgment when making a decision to self-quarantine.” Hundreds of lobbyists and visitors are in the Georgia Capitol on a typical day, although crowds began to thin dramatically late last week.

Kemp does not believe he was exposed, spokeswoman Candice Broce said. She said the Georgia Building Authority is working to clean the capitol and legislative office building.

Dougherty County officials say they have evidenced an unspecified number of infections are linked to two recent funerals. The county has seven confirmed infections, with two more in neighboring Lee County, authorities say.

Local officials said they have ordered churches in Dougherty County to halt all services — including Sunday worship, Bible studies, and weddings — until further notice. Meanwhile, funeral homes in the county agreed to hold only graveside services with attendance limited to family members.

“I recognize this is a very trying time and that people naturally want to congregate at church,” Christopher Cohilas, chairman of the Dougherty County Commission, told a news conference. “We know firsthand that has been the predominant way this virus has spread. And I want to emphasize it has spread through this community very, very quickly.”

State prison officials said in a news release Wednesday that they’d been notified that an employee at one of the state’s 34 prisons had tested positive for the virus. They declined to elaborate, citing security and privacy restrictions but said the person last reported to work Thursday.

The Department of Corrections said there were no known infections among the state’s prisoners.

One issue for health care workers and others who need to be on the job is child care, with more than 800 of Georgia’s 4,500 licensed child care centers reporting they have closed. The YMCA of Metro Atlanta and the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning announced Wednesday that 17 YMCA child care centers would solely offer care to children of health care workers, with most sites having room for 80 to 150 children.

Volunteer Michaela Lawrence hands out meals to families with students at Hilsman Middle School in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Meals will be handed out each morning from 8:00a.m. to 10:00p.m. at Hilsman Middle School in Oglethorpe Elementary as well as others delivered by bus due to caronavirus. (Joshua L. Jones / Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

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