The coming week could be the worst one of the seemingly never-ending coronavirus pandemic, public health officials have been warning. Estimates are that deaths in Georgia will peak around the time the next issue of Flagpole comes out. Whether Athens hospitals are able to handle it depends on whether Clarke County’s neighbors and Gov. Brian Kemp acted quickly enough.
Locally, I feel like we’re actually stabilized,” Piedmont Athens Regional CEO Michael Burnett said on a conference call with city leaders last week. “The ER volumes are more steady now. The shelter in place seems to be having some sort of impact.
“What we’re watching is some of the communities around us. They might have been lagging a little bit. As a regional hospital, we’re going to have to take care of those patients as well.
The Athens-Clarke County Commission declared a state of emergency and issued a shelter-in-place order on Mar. 16. Local residents spent the following weeks making masks and staying away from crowds, while in surrounding counties like Oconee, business continued as usual—cheered on by elected officials like Sheriff Scott Berry—until Gov. Brian Kemp gave his own order Apr. 2. While Clarke has seen more COVID-19 cases—95 to Oconee’s 41, as of Apr. 14—Oconee has surpassed Clarke on a per capita basis. Statewide, COVID-19 has killed more than 500 people.
Of course, no one knows how accurate those numbers really are. Last week the Department of Public Health subtracted a death from Oconee and added one to Clarke. It also remains unclear how the official number of deaths in Clarke remained at nine last week, even though WSB-TV reported that ten COVID-19 victims had died at one local nursing home, PruittHealth Grandview. County commissioners were stunned to learn of that report. “Why does it take a whistleblower contacting WSB for us to find out what’s going on?” Commissioner Russell Edwards said. The furor prompted DPH to issue a report on nursing home deaths.
Even the cases DPH does track leave out crucial information. While data from states like Wisconsin and Louisiana suggest that African Americans are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis, DPH only recently started keeping racial statistics for COVID-19 cases. Sure enough, of those whose race is known, more are black than white, despite the fact that Georgia has twice as many white people as African Americans.
As for the hospitals, both Burnett and St. Mary’s CEO Montrez Carter said their staffs have been preparing for a surge. Both said they have plans to increase the number of intensive care unit beds, have canceled all elective surgeries, are limiting visitors and have enough equipment. They have even figured out how to use anesthesia machines as makeshift ventilators. Both hospitals now have the ability to analyze tests in-house, which Burnett called “a huge game changer.” Instead of taking 12–14 days to get test results back, it now takes a few hours.
How long will the surge last? “We don’t have the level of detail to answer that question with the lack of testing,” Carter said.
Meanwhile, ACC Manager Blaine Williams and other officials continue to work on details of a coronavirus relief package. Some funding sources, such as revolving loans, were intended to serve as bridges to federal relief, but Williams said he’s been surprised how quickly the feds are acting. ACC is also talking to the Athens Land Trust about employing people to tend to community gardens, and to the Clarke County School District about assisting with meal delivery. (Working with CCSD, celebrity chef Hugh Acheson recently distributed 250 meals at Bethel Midtown Village and the Pinewoods mobile home park, home to many Latin American immigrants who are ineligible for federal benefits.)
While downtown and other commercial areas have emptied out, police are dealing with a rash of smash-and-grabs, including two at the same business downtown and nine on the Eastside, since the shelter-in-place ordinance took effect Mar. 20. Williams said that police are stepping up patrols, closing a gap in coverage downtown, and that the burglaries may have been “crimes of opportunity” committed by homeless people.
In addition, county officials are in talks with the Bigger Vision winter homeless shelter about reopening, and are considering hotel vouchers to house the homeless. Handwashing stations and portable toilets have been deployed downtown.
At the state level, Kemp extended the shelter-in-place order through Apr. 30 and the state of emergency until May 13. With the state of emergency extended, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger postponed the May 19 primaries until June 9.
Commissioners also talked about a few things non-coronavirus-related at their Apr. 7 meeting. They put off a vote on a contract with the Department of Corrections to have inmates pick up litter along state highways until the DOC agrees to pay the inmates or let ACC pay them. And they approved a 240-unit apartment complex off Hull Road near the Space Kroger shopping center on Highway 29.
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