By Peggy Mackenzie
As the county prepares for a potential outbreak of Coronavirus (Covid-19), a public health forum was held on Wednesday at the West Virginia School for Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM). It was attended by more than 100 public officials in the health field and a number of other agencies including homeland security, school, municipal, fire and rescue, police agencies, and county and state representatives. The meeting, led by Greenbrier County Commission President Lowell Rose, was convened to address how ready are we as a community to handle a crisis. “This is not about a panic,” Rose said. “We have a plan and we are prepared.”
Coronaviruses are common throughout the world and mostly cause mild to moderate illness. They are, for example, one cause of the common cold. Covid-19 was first identified during an investigation into an outbreak in Wuhan, China. Illness ranges from mild to severe respiratory illness including pneumonia with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath.
“The problem is people are scared,” said Dr. Bridgett Morrison. “They don’t know where to go to get tested. Most people don’t need it,” she said. “This is still flu season, but if you have a fever or are feeling short of breath, call your health care professional and schedule an appointment. It’s important to call ahead so doctors can be prepared for you in a safe way.”
Simple measures turned out to be the most important and best way to not contract coronavirus. “By maintaining social distance and washing your hands,” said Dr. Deb Schmidt.
Greenbrier County Public Health Nurse Nikki Dolan said, “This is a new Coronavirus (2019-nCov) that can cause serious respiratory illness in people, but we know what we need to do to prepare for should it come to our area. When we know what we’re treating, then we will know what is needed to be done.” Quarantining and social distancing is a good start.
“Who knew,” Homeland Security Executive Director Mike Honaker said with a laugh, “The greatest, newest trend is to wash our hands.” In addition, he said that handling money is one of the most common sources of germs. “It’s never laundered – it’s dirty. ATM machines, gas pumps, etc. are also places we don’t think of because we are so used to our regular habit patterns.” In any event, “Education and response is our goal, and the 911 Emergency Center is prepared for every kind of potential from aircraft to blankets,” Honaker said.
The elderly communities are a huge concern, Rose said. Masks were encouraged for the elderly population especially when going to see a doctor. If residing in a nursing home, family members were discouraged from visiting them at this time. Until Monday of this week, said Rose, the state lab was the only place where testing was being done, but this week, other labs around the state are taking part in the screening and testing. A phone number was provided to the public from the CDC, DHHR and the poison control center:1-800-887-4304, available 24/7.
The potential for local school closings was posed as a major concern for everyone. If schools are closed, BOE Superintendant Jeff Bryant said, core school materials will be given out to home-bound students to maintain a basic level of continuing their education programs.
A press release following the meeting was issued by Bryant, stating,“We will continue to collaborate closely with the Greenbrier County Health Department with regard to a closure decision. Should the situation escalate to a place where, upon a report from our health department, a case that is linked to one of our schools is confirmed, all schools in the county will be closed for a minimum of 14 days to all students, staff, and community members and all school-related activities will be canceled. We have prepared instructional packets that focus on the four core subjects for students to complete at home in the event of school closure.”
“Ensuring that children are fed during school closures is always a concern for us. If we find ourselves in a situation where closure is necessary, our plan includes distribution of non-perishable food to our students prior to their departure.” concludes Bryant.
The plan released by school officials also notes that in-state travel to areas with no confirmed cases will continue at this time. If the virus is identified in the destination county, a decision to travel will be made in consultation with public health professionals.
WVSOM President Jim Nimitz concurred, stating that travel is the big ticket item. He recommended people should strongly consider canceling non-essential trips. Large group gatherings – “like this” – must also be limited. WVSOM is working on how to handle normal school events like Spring Break and whether or not to allow students who wish to travel to their home countries to be able to come back to the school. “This is an evolving thing,” Nimitz said, that is going to affect all of us in one way or another. “Getting adequate supplies is currently a problem.” It was reported that DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch has confirmed there are no Coronavirus cases in the state.
“It is inevitable it will happen,” Nimitz said.
The economic angle, though not discussed directly by the health officials, but was palpable in the room. Florian Schleiff asked, “What happens to the children? The economic fallout is not being discussed.” Schleiff, representing Montwell Commons as a site designated as a community center of operations, is a partner with WVSOM. “There is an avalanche coming at us,” he said, “with huge economic fallout realities we may never see.”
State Fair of West Virginia Director Kelly Collins enlarged on that topic from her perspective, stating, “There are contracts we can’t get out of” if cancellations have to happen, citing the upcoming Brew Fest. “Who do I need to talk to or get information from? This is a tough call to make,” she said. She was advised to contact the state DHHR.
CVB Executive Director Kara Dense added, “If people stop coming here it’s going to have a tremendous effect on this county, particularly on The Greenbrier, which has 721 rooms to fill.” She viewed the Brew Fest and the Chocolate Festival, both outdoor events as a positive, and she said the CVB plans to continue to market the area.
With an edge of frustration, Schmidt said, “Here we are, health officials with nothing to do, waiting for the shoe to drop. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Where are we vulnerable? What are our resources? And what problems do we have, such as access to transporation, food, water and medicine?” She urged a group be formed to enlist the resources of the state and the federal government. She asked that the financial community look into developing a “slush fund” as a resource for vulnerable hourly waged people to access if needed.
Senator Stephen Baldwin spoke to a recently passed $2 million that will be used to cover up front costs until federal funding kicks in. “We need to communicate with each other better than we do,” he said. “Everyone is working hard in their own fields, but if we’re not talking to each other, the impact is not the same.” Chiming in, Congresswoman Cindy Lavender-Bowe said, “The flood of 2016 taught us much about planning and communication.”
With the promise of prompt action and planning from the attending officials, that lesson is being challenged once again in Greenbrier County. For more information: www.cdc.gov/COVID19
Fact Sheet Information:
- What to do if you are sick with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19): Know the symptoms and signs: Fever; cough; shortness of breath.
- Stay home when you are sick except to get medical care. Do not go to work, school, or public areas.
- Separate yourself from other people and animals in your home. As much as possible, stay in a specific room and away from other people in your home, including a separate bathroom.
- Call ahead before visiting your doctor.
- Wear a face mask when you are around other people/pets and before you enter a healthcare facility.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the bathroom; and before eating or preparing food.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid sharing personal household items, such as dishes, glasses, cups, utensils, towels or bedding.
- Monitor your symptoms.