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DeKalb County officials hold virtual town hall to discuss coronavirus

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DeKalb County officials hold virtual town hall to discuss coronavirus

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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By Zoe Seiler, contributor

DeKalb County, GA  – DeKalb County officials held a virtual town hall meeting on March 11 to provide information about how officials are responding to coronavirus. Officials present included DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, District Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Ford, Interim DeKalb County School District Superintendent Ramona Tyson and representatives from public safety departments.

To view the live stream, click here.

The county officials gave an overview of the coronavirus and detailed the school district’s plan in case all schools have to close.

What is the novel coronavirus?

District Health Director Elizabeth Ford gave an overview of the coronavirus.

“Coronavirus is the same virus that causes the common cold. It is the virus that causes SARS. It is the virus that causes MERS. So when we speak of this specific type of coronavirus that is impacting our community right now we say COVID-19 to distinguish from other types of coronavirus,” Ford said.

She then compared the number of cases of the coronavirus to the number of cases of the flu in the United States.

“While we have seen more than 1,000 cases in the United States thus far I would like to remind people that we have over 30 million cases of influenza in the United States and we have had over 15,000 fatalities from influenza,” Ford said.

She added that while the coronavirus is a valid concern, people must not forget that the flu is also going around the community and impacts the same population as the coronavirus.

How is the coronavirus spread?

The coronavirus is mainly spread through contact, Ford said.

For example, if someone sneezes or coughs and you are in proximity to them, the droplets could get on you or on a surface that you touch and then touch your face, Ford said.

She defined proximity as being in a six-foot perimeter from another person for 10 minutes or longer. The coronavirus is not spread when simply walking someone in a public place.

The virus also lives on surfaces for an undetermined amount of time.

“We’re not sure yet. We’ve heard studies that say it lasts for hours,” Ford said. “We’ve heard studies that say it lasts for days. Right now to err on the side of caution, we’re recommending that surfaces be cleaned frequently. So surfaces, coughing and close contact are the three ways that this is spread.”

Who is most at risk for contracting the coronavirus?

The senior population and those who have a compromised immune system are at a higher risk for having complications from the coronavirus, Ford said.

“That’s anyone whose immune system is not 100%. That could be a pregnant woman. It could be a diabetic. Someone on anti-hypertension medicine. Someone on chemotherapy. Anyone who is on chronic steroids,” Ford said. “Your immune system is compromised and so if you were to get COVID-19 you might be at risk for a more severe case.”

DeKalb County Director of Human Services Damon Scott said precautions have been taken to protect senior citizens who are at the senior centers in the county and who are homebound. These measures include placing sanitizing stations in all senior centers, posting CDC information in the senior centers and holding information sessions.

He added that the department is working with its transportation providers and volunteers to make sure everyone is informed and is in the process of getting more shelf-stable meals for homebound seniors.

Symptoms of coronavirus

The symptoms are similar to the flu and include a cough and a fever.

“With COVID-19 you’ll tend to see more shortness of breath. With influenza, you tend to have more body aches and an overall poor feeling. That’s sort of been the distinction between COVID-19 and influenza, is that you tend to have more respiratory symptoms with COVID-19,” Ford said.

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How to prevent getting the coronavirus

Ford gave a list of ways to prevent getting the coronavirus with No. 1 being to wash your hands and use hand sanitizer.

“You wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water,” Ford said.

“All hand sanitizer is not made the same. It has to contain a minimum of 60% alcohol to be effective,” she added.

No. 2 is to cover your cough preferably with a tissue.

“We’re not recommending coughing in your sleeve because the virus lives on surfaces and so we don’t know if you may touch your sleeve or someone may grab your arm and contract it like that. We’re recommending that people cough into a tissue if you have to cough and then discard the tissue immediately,” Ford said.

The third way to prevent the coronavirus is to clean surfaces frequently and think about surfaces like doorknobs, keyboards, cabinet handles and faucets in bathrooms.

“One of the biggest culprits is your cell phone. Basically, anything that you touch that other people might touch frequently needs to be cleaned on a regular basis,” Ford said.

Lastly, stay home if you’re sick and don’t send children to school if they are experiencing symptoms. Ford said this is critical as to not expose other people to the virus.

Testing for Coronavirus

Currently, the only testing facility for the state is the Georgia Public Health Lab which has received a tremendous amount of tests, Ford said.

If anyone is experiencing flu-like symptoms they should call their primary care physician or local emergency room prior to showing up at the medical facility. This will allow the healthcare professional to prepare for the arrival of a potential coronavirus patient.

“Your physician first has to notify the Georgia Department of Public Health that you have a suspected case,” Ford said. “So if you are symptomatic you call your doc you say I have been exposed to someone who is COVID-19 positive or I have traveled to one of the Level 3 countries, I’m concerned, I have symptoms.”

Not every person who visits a doctor will be tested. Ford explained that it will depend on the person’s symptoms and their level of risk for contracting the virus. Tests will eventually be sent to the CDC to be confirmed and receive official results.

“So far all of our tests at Georgia Public Health Lab that have been presumed positive have ended up being positive so we are treating presumed positives in Georgia as if they actually had the disease,” Ford said.

At that point, the patient is instructed based on whether or not they are symptomatic and their level of symptoms.

“Clearly if they are having respiratory symptoms they would be hospitalized if they are severe enough. Otherwise, we are recommending isolation. Staying away from people for 14 days until symptoms have resolved and of course contact isolation both inside their home and outside of their home,” Ford said.

The board of health at this time is not exercising any drastic measures to ensure that people are staying isolated, she said.

Ford added that there is a hope that in the upcoming weeks more tests will be available so more facilities will be able to test people. Once more tests are done, more individuals will test positive, according to Ford, adding that the community should be prepared for what that looks like in terms of school and work and how much people will have to be isolated.

DeKalb County’s plan

County officials also discussed various emergency plans that are already in place that would allow the county to deal with the issue and provide services.

Director of DeKalb County Public Safety Jack Lumpkin and Director of DeKalb County E911 Marshall Mooneyham discussed that the county has been planning for years to be prepared to respond to disaster and issues such as the coronavirus.

These plans include the Emergency Operations Plan and Continuity of Operations Plan that the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners adopted in February 2017.

“These plans serve as all hazards operating procedures for maintaining county operations and responding to service needs during a variety of disruptive events,” Mooneyham said.

He added that these plans are updated annually and were activated in 2018 during tropical storm Irma as well as in 2019 during the Super Bowl.

The Emergency Operations Plan sets the framework for the county to prepare for, respond to, recover from and mitigate to prevent the impacts of a disaster, Mooneyham said. It also describes strategies for the county to mobilize resources, facilitate inter-governmental operations and defines essential support functions and the responsible agencies, he added.

For example, all E911 call-takers are emergency medical dispatch certified. They can ask callers on specific calls primarily for flu-like symptoms and breathing problems.

“This allows our dispatchers to make notifications to first responders to make sure that they have the proper, personal protection before going on the scene of all calls,” Mooneyham said.

The E911 department has also worked with its emergency management partners and the fire and rescue department to provide phone numbers to non-emergency callers who are seeking information.

School district’s plan to minimize risk and exposure

Interim DeKalb County School District Superintendent Ramona Tyson explained the steps the school district is taking to keep everyone safe and has provided information regarding the coronavirus prominently on the district’s website.

The school district is working with the Georgia Public Health Department, the Board of Health, the Georgia Department of Education, the Governor’s Office and the U.S. Department of Education to receive guidance and make decisions.

The school district is asking parents of new students who are coming from high-risk areas to call the district to tell them where they are coming from. The district will then work with related agencies to determine an appropriate registration and attendance plan for the student, Tyson said.

DeKalb County Schools have canceled all international and out-of-state field trips and conferences for students and district employees and is evaluating in-state trips on a case by case basis. The district is not currently approving any new field trips or conferences, Tyson said.

She also said that students, parents and employees should notify the schools if they are ill when returning from traveling and coming back to school.

“If that student is not well, we will not allow re-entry into the school district. Again we will be working under the guidance under the agencies to make a determination on when it’s appropriate to come back into the school district,” Tyson said.

“The same rule applies when they have traveled out of the country on their own, they must call us and we’ll run through a series of information to determine their re-entry into work,” she added.

At this time, the school district has not placed restrictions on student participation in athletics, regional, state or national competitions that are held in Georgia, however, the district has reserved the right to revisit this, Tyson said.

The district is escalating its cleaning protocol for buildings and buses.

“We’ll continue to clean and disinfect our schools on a daily basis, particularly the high touch areas. School leaders, building principals have been directed to provide an adequate supply of hand soap, hand sanitizers, paper towels and disinfectants for building cleanliness,” Tyson said.

Tyson also emphasized throughout the meeting that if a child is exhibiting flu-like symptoms or has a fever, they should stay home and not go to school.

Also at this time, the district is encouraging parents to send their kids to school if they are healthy and practice proactive measures to prevent getting the virus.

School closure

In the event that schools have to close, the district is prepared with digital learning days, which is a plan that has been in place for a while to be used during a snow day or during inclimate weather.

Tyson said the teachers are prepared to move classes online and already have assignments loaded into the digital platform.

“Our children grades one through 12 will be able to get their content information to complete a plethora of assignments that have been prepared by their teachers. For our younger children, pre-k through kindergarten, we are going to have hard-copy copies just in case they need them,” she said.

She also added that the district has access to services so that it can still provide students with food through the feeding program that operates during regularly scheduled school breaks. Tyson said the district is proactively planning how to provide those feeding services if schools should close.

If there is an exposure or a positive test of the coronavirus, Tyson said the district would first contact the DeKalb Board of Health and the Georgia Department of Public Health. They would then notify the Governor’s Office and the Georgia Department of Education and make sure those agencies know what the district is doing.

Tyson said that those steps do not prevent her from making a decision and closing schools but allows the district to work with those agencies to streamline communications.

“I will close school based on the best interest of students and families,” Tyson said. “Those school closures would be announced on our website as well as the Georgia Department of Education website.”

The district will work under the guidance of the DeKalb Board of Health and other agencies to make a decision based on what the district is facing.

More information about the school district’s plan can be found on the district website. Additionally, more information about the coronavirus can be found on the CDC website.

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