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As coronavirus spreads through the U.S., local leaders wait and watch

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As coronavirus spreads through the U.S., local leaders wait and watch

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name. Public domain image obtained via https://www.niaid.nih.gov/news-events/novel-coronavirus-sarscov2-images
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This story has been updated. 

Decatur, GA – Local leaders say they are watching and waiting as coronavirus begins spreading across the United States, but it isn’t clear yet how local governments will respond to the virus if it hobbles local government services.

The DeKalb County Board of Health said it would lead any local public health response.

“The DeKalb County Board of Health, one of 18 health districts in Georgia under the direction of DPH, would lead the local response,” according to Eric Nickens with the county Health Board.  “The DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency would be a critical key partner in such a response.”

Nickens serves as the county Health Board’s manager of the Office of Marketing and Business Development. He notes that the DeKalb Department of Public Health Website has a rotating banner on the home page that links to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s website. Nickens also provided guidance on preventing the communal spread of the virus, which is similar to what other agencies have provided.

It is less clear how the county would respond to a widespread outbreak that hobbles government services.

The DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency, which would be involved in any local response, didn’t have anything about the virus on its website as of March 1 but on March 2 — after this article was published — updated the site with information about how it intends to respond if there’s a widespread outbreak here.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control — located in DeKalb County — is leading the nation’s response to coronavirus.

On March 1, USA Today reported that there could be hundreds of cases in Washington state. There are also confirmed cases in Rhode Island, Chicago, California, New York and Oregon. Health officials are starting to see cases of “community transmission,” meaning the people contracted these illnesses from another source within the community.

As of Sunday evening, March 1, two deaths in the United States have been attributed to coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. But more fatalities are expected though the estimates vary from the thousands to the millions. The current number of deaths globally is close to 3,000, according to the Washington Post.

Atlanta, home to the world’s busiest airport, will likely be affected by coronavirus as well. A local outbreak could result in more people working from home and school closures, according to the Los Angeles Times. It could also harm local businesses. As of March 1, local stores already were low on supplies of hand sanitizer and other items to help combat the spread of the virus.

Chinese health officials believe the virus came from an animal source in the city of Wuhan that then spread person-to-person. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some causing illness in people and others that affect animals, including camels, cats and bats, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Officials suspect the 2019 novel strain, identified as 2019-nCoV, emerged from the SARS virus, which killed hundreds around the globe in 2003. There is no vaccine for this strain of coronavirus.

Symptoms include fever, dry cough and shortness of breath and can appear anywhere between two days or two weeks after exposure. The coronavirus spreads person-to-person, much like influenza, and can easily be contracted through exposure to someone who has the virus. In the current outbreak, the CDC said, symptoms have ranged from infected people with little to no symptoms to people being severely ill and dying. Older people and those with compromised immune systems are most vulnerable.

Local leaders are monitoring the situation but have not outlined specific plans for how they will respond when cases begin cropping up locally.

“The city is prepared to address COVID-19 based on past planning for other pandemics, such H1N1, bird flu, etc,” Decatur City Manager Andrea Arnold said. “The city has a pandemic response plan that is currently being reviewed with the latest information from the CDC for COVID-19. Once we have information prepared to be shared publicly, we will communicate it through our social media channels. DeKalb County is the authorized emergency management organization for our jurisdiction and we will be working closely with [the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency].”

It’s important to note here that there is disagreement about whether the coronavirus should be called an epidemic – a regional outbreak of a disease – or a pandemic, which is the global spread of a new disease, according to the New York Times. Both are being used to describe the coronavirus, the New York Times reported.

The DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency’s website contained no information about coronavirus as of Sunday evening, March 1, and there were no mentions of the virus on the agency’s official social media channels. That changed on March 2, after this story was first published.

The International City/County Management Association in 2009 published an older version of the city of Decatur’s pandemic response plan. While the plan published in 2009 should not be assumed to be the city’s current plan, it does offer some clues about how the city would deal with an outbreak of a virus. The plan published in 2009 assumes, for example, that 30 to 50 percent of the city’s employees could become ill at the pandemic’s peak and other workers won’t report to work due to fears over becoming sick or caring for ill family members. This will hinder the government’s ability to provide services and result in the closure of some government offices. Confusion and panic in the community could overwhelm the city’s communication systems. Travel within and outside the community could be restricted. Financial stress and civil unrest could create security threats. And it could create a “serious economic downturn, the scope and duration of which are impossible to predict.”

To see the Decatur pandemic response plan that ICMA published in 2009, click here.

According to the plan published in 2009 by ICMA, the city has an Emergency Management Committee that is tasked with leading the city through any pandemic response. It is not clear who is on that committee now. An Emergency Services Guide the city published in 2018-2019 features a list of the city’s “emergency managers.” They include Fire Chief Toni Washington, City Clerk Meredith Roark, City Manager Andrea Arnold, Assistant City Manager David Junger and Police Chief Mike Booker. The Emergency Services Guide contains a section on flu prevention, but it doesn’t contain any information about the city’s pandemic response plan.

The Decatur Emergency Services Guide and the pandemic plan the ICMA published in 2009 do not specify how City Schools of Decatur would respond to a pandemic.

Courtney Burnett, a spokesperson for City Schools of Decatur, said the district is monitoring the situation and taking its guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health, the Georgia Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The district has protocols in place due to the current cold and flu season,” Burnett said. “We will continue to implement these efforts and can increase [them], should that be warranted. In addition, we are following the GaDOE’s recommendations to schools to prepare contingency plans for COVID-19. This is an ever-evolving situation, and we will evaluate our plans and make adjustments if necessary as new information becomes available. City Schools of Decatur is ready to take appropriate measures as needed.”

The CDC is recommending that schools with identified cases consider closing to stop the spread of the virus. A school closure would need to be recommended by a local public health official, the CDC says.

The response from Decatur is similar to the ones provided by other local cities and school districts.

Avondale Estates City Manager Patrick Bryant said the city doesn’t have a pandemic response plan and hasn’t discussed what the city will do in response to a local coronavirus outbreak.

“But there is little we can do,” Bryant said. “We have a small staff and limited resources. If any serious pandemic were to occur, we would look to state and federal governments for assistance.”

The city of Tucker has been working closely with DEMA and the DeKalb County Department of Public Health, city spokesperson Matt Holmes said.

“We coordinate with Chief Joseph Cox and his team on all potential emergencies, mostly weather-related,” he said. “In this case, we consulted with representatives from the CDC and they encouraged us to follow DeKalb’s lead on response to the coronavirus.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told Atlanta INtown that the city is following CDC and state recommendations and guidelines and advised residents to keep a supply of essential medications and to make arrangements for child care if someone in a household becomes ill.

Ian Smith, a spokesperson for Atlanta Public Schools, said the district is monitoring the situation and takes it seriously.

“District officials will remain in close contact with local, state, and federal agencies – such as the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE), the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), the Fulton County Board of Health (BOH), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for the latest information on this disease,” Smith said. “In this case, many of the decisions and plans around quarantines or school closures will be led by the federal government with assistance from state emergency management officials. We have received guidance from those agencies and are incorporating key components into the District’s emergency management practices.  We will provide updated information to students, families and District employees as we receive directives from local, state, and federal health officials. To stay abreast of emerging health news in APS, click here to visit our health alerts page.”

In a statement, the DeKalb County School District said it is looking to the Georgia Department of Public Health for guidance.

“Regarding the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak, DeKalb County School District (DCSD) is following guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), which states that ‘students, faculty or staff whose family members have traveled from China in the last 14 days do not need to be excluded from school.’ Those who have traveled from China in the past 14 days and do have a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing should seek medical care, according to DPH,” the DeKalb County School District said. “Currently, there are no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus infection in Georgia. DCSD is monitoring the status of the coronavirus with our partners at the DeKalb Board of Health, DeKalb Emergency Management Agency, and partners in neighboring school districts. The district will provide updates if the situation evolves. The safety and well-being of our students and staff remains a top priority.”

The CDC offers the following recommendations to help people avoid catching the virus:

– Wash your hands with soap and water frequently, or use a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol.

– Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

– Avoid direct contact with people who are sick.

– Cover your coughs and sneezes.

– Stay home if you’re sick.

– Clean and disinfect items you use on a regular basis.

Here are the recommendations from the DeKalb County Board of Health:

– Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

– Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

– Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

– Stay home when you are sick.

– Cough or sneeze into your elbow or use a tissue to cover it, then throw the tissue in the trash.

– Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

The DeKalb County Board of Health is encouraging people not to buy facemasks.

“Surgical masks should be reserved for people who exhibit symptoms (to prevent them from spreading the virus through respiratory secretions such as saliva or mucus) and healthcare professionals who are taking care of sick people,” the DeKalb County Board of Health says. “Regular surgical face masks are not effective in protecting against the coronavirus, according to the CDC. A more specialized face mask known as N95 respirators are thicker than surgical masks and are fitted to a person’s face to keep out any viral particles.”

For more information from the CDC, click here.

Jessica Zorker & Kelsea Miller with Cronkite News contributed reporting to this story. 

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