Government officials around Barrow County continued to make plans Friday, March 13, in response to the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic.
President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency in a press conference Friday afternoon by invoking the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assisting Act, according to multiple national media outlets — a move that will open up some $50 billion to combat the spread of COVID-19 and provide additional financial assistance and resources in the response efforts.
“This opens up the possibility of (local governments) recouping some of the money we may spend that’s directly related to combating this,” Barrow County emergency management director Penny Clack said Friday morning during an emergency-called Winder City Council meeting to discuss the virus and response preparations.
Late Friday afternoon, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp followed suit, declaring a public health emergency in the state starting Saturday, March 14, and called for an emergency session of the General Assembly to convene 8 a.m. Monday, March 16, a day after the state legislature decided to suspend its regular session.
Kemp said it's the state's first known public health emergency declaration.
"This declaration will greatly assist health and emergency management officials across Georgia by deploying all available resources for the mitigation and treatment of COVID-19," Kemp said. "At this time, it is appropriate for faith-based organizations and similar entities to consider cancellation of public events and services," Kemp said. Contact your local public health office or consult official sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health, for helpful guidance on decision-making. Elderly citizens and those with chronic, underlying health conditions face a serious threat to their health, and we must do everything in our power to reduce risk associated with this virus.
"Continue to support one another, be mindful of potential exposure, use best practices to prevent infection, and pray for your fellow Americans in the weeks ahead."
Winder mayor David Maynard called Friday's council meeting to hear from city department heads and receive presentations related to the virus from county emergency response officials.
Susan Kristal, the nurse manager for the Barrow County Health Department, said the county is following its pandemic preparedness plan, which has six stages, even though there are still no confirmed cases in the county.
“We’re in stage 5 right now, which is planning to isolate any cases, closing schools, and encouraging governments and businesses to implement emergency staffing plans,” Kristal said. “Stage 6 would be to consider suspending government meetings or functions not related to (pandemic) response efforts.”
CLOSURES, PLANS, PROCEDURES
For now, the City of Winder will continue to have its offices open to the public while encouraging employees to practice diligent personal hygiene and other recommendations made by federal and state health agencies and asking them to stay home if they feel sick.
City utilities director Roger Wilhelm said the city is keeping track with CDC information as far as drinking water and wastewater advisories go. He said while the virus can be discharged in feces, chlorine treatment in the water supplies does kill it. Wilhelm encouraged citizens, in light of shortages of toilet paper at stores, to not flush wipes, napkins, paper towels, etc.
Elsewhere around the county, Barrow County manager Mike Renshaw and leisure services director Dan Magee said the county would be suspending all senior programming at the Barrow County Senior Citizens Center for two weeks, effective Monday, March 16. Magee said while the building itself will be closed, staff will provide shelf-stable meals upon request to any county resident who is 60 years and older. The center’s phone number is 770-307-3025.
Meanwhile, senior center staff will continue to deliver Meals on Wheels to homebound members and check on their welfare during deliveries, Renshaw said.
“We are also going to assist our senior clients, as staffing allows, with individual trips to the pharmacy and doctor’s office,” Magee said. “We are also referring seniors with special and additional needs to the Northeast Georgia Area Agency on Aging at 706-583-2546. The AAA offers a number of services specific to seniors which county senior centers in the region do not have the resources to provide.”
The county has also suspended all youth and adult sports programing at county parks and recreation facilities until further notice “in order to minimize exposure within large groups,” Renshaw said.
At county offices, the county’s human resources department has developed administrative procedures that will allow all non-essential staff to utilize paid time off in order to stay at home if they become ill; staff without sufficient PTO remaining would also be allowed to accept donated time from others, if necessary, under a temporary policy, Renshaw said.
Renshaw said the county’s custodial crews are treating hard surfaces with a water/bleach mix at all county buildings as recommended by the county health department.
“County offices will remain open for business at this time and I don't anticipate any significant disruption of services,” Renshaw said. “…This is a very fluid situation so these measures may change.”
Meanwhile, the City of Auburn plans to keep its offices open for now while encouraging the same practices from employees. In a Facebook post, the city does encourage people paying bills to consider utilizing a drop box available in front of City Hall rather than making in-person payments.
City administrator Alex Mitchem said the city council work session scheduled for Thursday, March 19, will be moved to Thursday, April 2, immediately before the voting session.
The city asks anyone with other business with the city to call or email city staff in advance of visiting city facilities.
“The city is committed to managing risk associated with the spread of the virus by using technology whenever possible,” the message said.
City of Statham offices will remain open for now, Mayor Joe Piper said, and the city council still plans to meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 17. The Town of Bethlehem will also have normal office hours.
The Barrow County School System and Bethlehem Christian Academy announced Thursday night, March 12, they would be closing school for two weeks beginning Monday with tentative plans to reopen March 30. All school activities, including sports, will be canceled during that time. Soccer matches Friday between Apalachee and Winder-Barrow high schools at AHS were still scheduled to be played as of midday Friday. Lanier Technical College announced it has extended its spring break by a week and there will be no classes the week of March 16-20.
As far as other planned local events, the annual Tree House, Inc. auction scheduled for March 20 has been postponed until further notice and will be rescheduled at a later date. And a district Boy Scout Pinewood Derby race scheduled for Saturday, March 14, at Winder First United Methodist Church, was also postponed late Friday afternoon.
EFFORTS TO STOP THE SPREAD
According to the latest figures from the Georgia Department of Public Health, as of midday Friday there were 42 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state, primarily in the metro Atlanta area, but also in some rural counties in the southern part of the state. There no confirmed cases in Barrow so far, but officials expect there eventually will be.
The state reported its first virus-related death Thursday — a 67-year-old man who died at a hospital in Marietta.
The DPH unveiled a new online tool on its website that has county-by-county data and will update every day at noon.
At Friday’s called Winder council meeting, Kristal and other health officials repeatedly stressed that the main goal is to keep the virus from spreading. They urged citizens to listen to agencies like the CDC, DPH and the county health department and to follow recommended guidelines and procedures.
Washing hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, keeping hand sanitizers at work stations and cleaning commonly-used surfaces are advised.
“In a time like this when this is kind of unprecedented, we’re having to change on a daily basis to adapt to the information we’re given because things can change fast,” Kristal said. “You don’t want to be blind to what’s happening around you. We want to be proactive.
“Some of these measures may seem a bit extreme; however, we all individually need to be intentional about social distancing. Staying at least six feet apart from each other is what’s being recommended. What we know from the data we already have is that in the places that has taken place, it has slowed (the spread of the virus).”
The virus has an incubation period of two to 14 days with an average time of about five days after exposure before any symptoms appear, Clack said. Common symptoms are a fever (especially one sustained after taking medication), dry cough, shortness of breath and, in very severe cases, pneumonia in both lungs, which can be fatal. Eighty percent of patients are reported to have “mild” symptoms.
The people most at risk are elderly people with underlying medical conditions — upper respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, etc., Clack said. Children are generally resilient to the virus, but they can be vectors for transmitting it to grandparents and other people who may not be as resilient, she said.
Kristal said the virus is tending to linger in people for an average of 14-20 days and that it’s important for people to get isolated and treated to be able to tell how contagious they may be after they start to feel better.
Kristal said the county health department does not have testing kits locally and asks for people who experience symptoms to stay in their car upon arriving and department personnel will meet them there.
Barrow County Emergency Services Chief Alan Shuman said the line of supply for masks and gloves is short right now but that he believes “we’ll see the chain loosen up over time.”
He said extra precautions are in place, including limiting the number of personnel who respond on calls to suspected cases of the virus. The department also is in coordination with Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow on procedures for transporting those patients to the hospital, Shuman said.
Shuman and BCES public information officer Scott Dakin added that the general rule of thumb for calling 911 for medical reasons remains: Don’t call unless you feel like you are having a true medical emergency.
For updated procedures and visitation guidelines for the Northeast Georgia Health System, including NGMC Barrow, go to https://www.nghs.com/covid-19?ref=nghs_hp.
Listed below are some various informational resources for people to use in monitoring the coronavirus:
GDPH Daily COVID-19 Status Report: https://dph.georgia.gov/georgia-department-public-health-covid-19-daily-status-report
GDPH COVID-19 Resources and Info: https://dph.georgia.gov/novelcoronavirus
CDC FAQs about COVID-19: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html
CDC Prevention Steps: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/prevention.html.