Athens-Clarke County commissioners pressed a Georgia Department of Public Health official last week on whether it’s accurately reporting COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes.
WSB-TV reported Apr. 7 that 10 residents had died of COVID-19 at the PruittHealth Grandview nursing home in Athens. At the time, though, just nine deaths had been reported in Clarke County, and two weeks after the report, that number had risen by just three.
A website created by PruittHealth listed seven positive tests and three pending at Grandview and said one person had recovered, but did not say how many had died. The first list of long-term care facilities deaths released by DPH on Apr. 3 did not list any deaths at Grandview, but the most recent report on Apr. 10 listed eight.
“This issue with the 10 deaths is really eroding credibility all around,” Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said at an Apr. 14 work session, because people don’t believe the official statistics.
It’s unclear how many, if any, of the Grandview deaths have been included in Clarke County’s statistics. “Some of that has to do with lag of reporting in cases of deaths in general,” Stephen Goggans, director of the East Central Health District in Augusta, told commissioners. DPH is aware of the problem and “folks are already working on that,” he said.
There have been much larger outbreaks at nursing homes in Albany, Macon and Atlanta, Nor is the problem confined to Georgia—last week 17 bodies were found in a New Jersey nursing home where coronavirus has claimed 68 lives.
Residents of long-term care facilities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their age, tendency to have underlying conditions and communal living conditions, according to Goggans.
“This virus, we still believe, in most cases is a mild virus,” he said. “In a small number of cases, it is very severe, and obviously has the potential to be fatal for folks particularly who have chronic comorbid illnesses—diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, things such as that—and for those who are older, possibly because those illnesses come with age and possibly because the immune system doesn’t react the same.”
Classic symptoms are a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath, but lately, in nursing homes doctors are seeing other symptoms, such as confusion, vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite, Goggans said.
Tests have been in short supply nationwide, but now that results are available in 1–3 days, DPH is recommending that people with symptoms who are not part of a high-risk group be tested. A second testing site—in addition to the one at Piedmont Athens Regional’s Oconee campus—has been set up in Barrow County, but will move around to various hotspots. And DPH is working with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and the UGA/Georgia Regents University medical partnership to use a mobile clinic for testing in areas where people might not have access to transportation to a testing site. “We’ll learn a lot more, I think, about the real nature of the illness in the population, as opposed to just the folks who are selected for their higher risk,” Goggans said.
Another potentially vulnerable population is the homeless. “I’m not aware of any cases in the homeless population right now,” Goggans said. “Obviously there have been outbreaks in other parts of the country, so that’s a population we watch very closely.”
At a called meeting prior to the work session, the commission voted unanimously to split $150,000 from the county’s $3 million Prosperity Package among four agencies—Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, Bigger Vision and Family Promise. That money will pay to operate a homeless day services center and provide hotel rooms for 10 individuals and 10 families, plus other emergency shelter, and cleaning supplies for 65 indigent households, food for at least 85 people and personal protective equipment for staff and volunteers. Manager Blaine Williams said he is hopeful the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse those costs.
Forthcoming federal Community Development Block Grants could also be spent on homeless services, food assistance, PPE, cleaning supplies, transportation and other “things that are related to assisting people in responding to the pandemic,” Williams said. Officials also discussed using the Classic Center Pavillion as a place where people who are currently living in outdoor camps can safely stay in a more hygienic environment, with portable restrooms, trash receptacles and handwashing stations.
Prior to the meeting, some activists wrote to Mayor Kelly Girtz and commissioners requesting a town hall meeting with community members and nonprofits before deciding how to spend the remainder of the Prosperity Package. Girtz said a portal will open on the county website this week for nonprofits to apply for funding. ACC attorneys are also working with the City of Winterville to create a joint development authority that can legally distribute funds to local businesses.
In one final bit of business, the commission approved a measure allowing bars and restaurants to temporarily sell growlers of draft beer. “The big bottles are coming your way,” Girtz said.
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