Mayor, health officials answer questions about COVID-19 at town hall meeting

Published 9:38 pm Thursday, March 12, 2020

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What was supposed to be a Thursday night town-hall meeting for LaGrange residents to ask city officials about their tax dollars at work, turned into a briefing about the state of COVID-19 in Troup County.

Representatives from the city of LaGrange, Troup County, Troup County School System, Georgia Department of Public Health District 4 and WellStar West Georgia Medical Center talked to the public in person and through Facebook Live about the current state of the virus in the region.

“The city of LaGrange, as well as the other elected leadership and staff leadership in our community, are taking these issues seriously,” LaGrange Mayor Jim Thronton said. “We’re talking to each other. We’re sharing information. We’re looking to the experts in the field, the public health experts, the medical experts and are looking for direction from them.”

He said the city has been discussing the best plan of action for a few weeks in case of an outbreak of the COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, in LaGrange and Troup County.

Thornton said the city is taking its lead from the state and other medical experts about how to best respond.

“We are making sure that we’re making the right decisions and the right choices,” he said. “At the same time, not overreacting to sensational news, but getting the facts and understanding exactly what is going on.”

As of Thursday evening, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Troup County, according to public health officials.

At noon on Friday, the Troup County School Board of Education will host a meeting to discuss a possible closure based on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s comments from Thursday saying schools should assess whether to close for two weeks starting Friday.

Penny Johnson, TCSS assistant superintendent, said the school system has about 12,000 students and safety is the No. 1 concern.

The system announced earlier on Thursday that it suspended all international and out-of-state field trips.

“We’ve implemented a precautionary protocol, much larger than we’ve ever done before,” Johnson said. “And so, we’re going through extensive cleaning, and educating parents and making sure that if anyone presents with any sort of illness that they’re referred to local health care facilities.”

The Heard County School System announced on its Facebook Thursday night that it will close after school lets out Friday with the hope to resume March 30.

The Harris County School District said the health and safety of students are its highest priority but that it had not made a decision on closure.

Lafayette Christian School and LaGrange Academy have also not made decisions regarding their future classroom activities.

At 3 p.m. Friday, Troup County Board of Commissioners Chairman Patrick Crews said officials from the county, city of LaGrange, public health school system, WellStar and Emory Hospital will meet to discuss each entity’s part in the current situation.

With the sweeping cancelations Thursday of several NCAA conference tournaments, including the NCAA Tournament itself, Thornton wanted to ensure his constituents that LaGrange is still open for business.

“The city the Grange is fully operational,” he said. “If you need the police or the fire department, call 911. We will respond. Our utility crews and tree crews are all working.”

Thornton said the city has implemented precautionary steps at city hall, including declaring the building a “handshake-free zone.”

“Also, we are asking our employees to stay home if they feel like they are potentially exposed,” he said. “We are not worried about absenteeism right now.”

Dr. Olugbenga Obasanjo with the Department of Public Health District 4 said the state’s first death to the coronavirus is the type of person the health department is trying to protect. He said the man victim was a 67-year-old with a series of medical conditions.

“There are the folks we are trying to refrain from getting this infection,” he said.

Obasanjo said the man didn’t have a history of travel, so it is believed he acquired the virus within the community. He said individuals should avoid touching their face, distance themselves socially, avoid handshakes and aggressively keep hands sanitized.

“Everybody at this point should be moving around with hand sanitizer,” Obasanjo said.

He also said if a person feels like they are suspected of contracting COVID-19 or have a family member with the illness, to identify a room in the home, preferably one with a restroom, and isolate themselves for up to 14 days if necessary. He said they should limit contact with others and have food brought to them.

Additionally, Obasanjo said people should use grocery delivery or pick up to limit contact with other people. 

“This is a time to be very creative,” he said.

He said for now, there are no cases in Troup County, but just because none are official, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any in the community.

“It is very safe to assume that we have it in the community,” Obasanjo said.

Dr. Rod Duraski, vice president of medical affairs at WellStar West Georgia Medical Center, said the hospital would be required to release information about any cases within the hospital.

WellStar has limited access to the hospital and is performing screening of all entrances to limit as much contact as possible.

Duraski also said the medical center is limiting access to nursing homes. He said officials are asking visitors about travel history and limited entry to one immediate family member for each resident.

Both Obasanjo and Duraski admitted that testing supplies are limited and most kits are used on individuals with the highest risk of death. Duraski said doctors try to identify other diseases, and if one explains the symptoms a person is exhibiting, he stops investigating. For example, if a person tests positive for the flu, they do not also test for coronavirus, as it is highly unlikely a patient would have both.

He said WellStar is awaiting the test results of one patient for COVID-19, which had not come back as of Thursday. Duraski said that person has gone into self-isolation.

As for church services this weekend, Obasanjo encouraged the use of technology. He said church services should consider the use of social media and podcasts, especially for vulnerable populations.

“That is what I would strongly suggest,” he said.

Duraski said those with underlying medical conditions shouldn’t attend services, but those who are healthy should be fine.

“I’m going to church on Sunday,” he said.

When it comes to schools, Obasanjo said young people are much less likely to contract the illness, for unknown reasons at this point. However, if a teacher ends up with the virus, he said his conversations with TCSS Superintendent Brian Shumate would change.

“But for now, let’s take all the precaution and identify the vulnerable ones,” he said.

Thornton said his takeaway from the evening is that LaGrange and Troup County have smart people working on the issue.

“It’s very important that all of us as citizens, as well as city and county officials, encourage people not to follow these rumors and random Facebook posts and so forth,” he said. “This is a very serious issue. It is not the end of the world, but it is a very serious issue.”