Augusta and Georgia preparing for coronavirus outbreak

COVID-19, Augusta,

Source: Augusta Chronicle

The novel coronavirus is not yet circulating in Augusta or Georgia but officials and businesses are already making preparations and plans should an outbreak occur.

Working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia Department of Public Health and state departments are preparing to quickly identify and track cases should they emerge, the department announced last week.

East Central Health District in Augusta, which would take a lead role in the event of a pandemic, is following guidance from the department and communicating with local hospitals, said District Director Stephen Goggans.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is one of the U.S. airports where international passengers were being screened and the department previously said it was following about 200 travelers who were self-quarantined and monitoring their temperatures and symptoms, although the state has had no confirmed cases yet.

The state already has extensive pandemic flu plans, and is adapting it for a COVID-19 outbreak. The state is also holding weekly calls with all public health departments and hospitals to communicate information and planning from CDC.

The state was among those who received test kits from CDC that contained a faulty element but is hoping to get new test kits next week and to validate those within a week or so, said Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam.

CDC has since determined that one of the three elements that proved faulty is actually not needed and that the tests can be used accurately with the two current elements, said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at CDC. New test kits are also going out to the states and the goal is to have all state public health departments doing their own tests by the end of the week, she said.

While CDC will continue to do confirmation tests on those state and local tests, those patients could be considered “presumptive positives” that would allow state and local health authorities to take the appropriate action, Messonnier said.

AU Medical Center, like most hospitals, has a pandemic plan and trains for it, said Dr. Jose Vazquez, chief of infectious diseases at Augusta University. It also has a coronavirus task force that meets weekly to go over and update plans and new information, he said.

Should an outbreak occur, “I feel confident we can handle it,” Vazquez said.

Richmond County School System works closely with the public health department and would follow guidance from it should an outbreak occur, spokeswoman Lynthia Ross said.

Columbia County School District is also communicating with state and local agencies and monitoring the progress of COVID-19, spokeswoman Abbigail Remkus said.

“As we are already in influenza or flu season, housekeeping staff in all school buildings are being asked to take extended measures with sanitizing high-touch areas like doorknobs and desktops, in addition to daily, routine cleaning and sanitizing measures already in place,” she said.

Students and staff who are experiencing symptoms, such as a fever, are being asked to stay at home and anyone with a fever of 100 degrees or higher will be sent home and asked not to return unless they have been without a fever for 24 hours while not on fever reducing medication, Remkus said. The school district would also follow the guidance of CDC and the state public health should an outbreak occur, she said.

It would not be a bad idea for businesses and family to take the time now to review plans they have for a pandemic or other disruptions of their normal routines and make sure they are up to date and make sense for a potential outbreak this year, Goggans said.

Havird Usry, an Augusta restaurateur and board member of the Georgia Restaurant Association, said some of the most helpful educational materials he has seen have been provided by ServSafe, the company that trains and certifies food preparers and handlers.

He believes all food establishments should be prepared in case the outbreak worsens.

“Right now it has been low on everybody’s agenda, but I do believe that it is of the utmost importance with the Masters around the corner,” he said. “We all need to be cautious.”

Usry said he has no heard of any events or parties that have canceled their plans based on the threat of virus.

“Our Masters week looks great right now; everybody is fairly booked and feels like its going to be a good year ahead of us,” he said. “That could change in the blink of an eye if it comes down to a pandemic situation.”

Darryl Leech, general manager and vice president of the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center, the city’s largest hotel, said he has not seen any impact on bookings at his hotel because of the virus. Augusta is primarily a regional corporate destination.

However, as secretary of the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association, Leech said he has heard from colleagues in major cities that have seen cancellations in large international conferences and conventions. The ITB Berlin, the world’s largest tourism trade fair, was canceled on Friday over coronavirus concerns.

“There are conventions around the world that are canceling because of this, from London to New York, it’s all over the place,” he said.

Atlanta, which also hosts international conventions, is beginning to see some business “fall off.”

“I’m sure it could easily have some sort of ripple effect there,” Leech said.

Jay Markwalter, executive director of the Georgia Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus, said all of the state’s tourism boards are monitoring cancellations, following CDC precautions and reviewing their crisis plans.

“We do know the situation can change pretty quickly,” Markwalter said.