EMA director: 'This is a new day’

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The biggest thing that Camden County's emergency management director wants citizens to do is to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously and distance themselves from other people. 

This is already having a financial impact on several local businesses that have chosen to close their doors or limit their products and services. For others, it is business as usual, even if the crowds are a little thinner. 

"We understand that as Americans, the right to assemble is paramount, right? This is a new day. It's critical that everyone do their part," said Chuck White, EMA director. 

What emergency managers like White worry about is that in coming weeks, the demand for medical services will exceed capacity. That has not happened yet, he said, but a lot of work is going on behind the scenes to prepare for what is likely to come. 

White said how well people heed those warnings now will determine how difficult the days ahead will be for Camden County. 

As of press time on Wednesday, Camden did not have a single confirmed case of the viral infection caused by coronavirus. However, viruses need to be viewed on a regional scale, White said. They are operating on the assumption that there are some undiagnosed cases already in this community.

"We have Interstate 95. We have a lot of cross pollination with thousands of people traveling on the interstate highway," he said. "We are on the doorstep of over 1 million people in Florida and they already have multiple cases."

EOC activated

The Camden County Board of Commissioners declared a precautionary public health emergency declaration during a called meeting on Monday. White said that triggered a number of things, most importantly activating the emergency operations center and a joint response team. 

This is a formal structure that will streamline the efficiency and communications involved in working this large-scale, multi-jurisdictional emergency, similar to what happens when a hurricane threatens our coast, he said. 

"It helps us to organize more formally, set objectives and to work priorities that are in the best interest of our citizens," White said.

Some of the conference calls involve local and state elected officials who can help make sure that any needs can be communicated to the government agencies that can address them.

"From the government standpoint, our single overarching priority is the safety and health of our citizens. There also is an economic impact to us. Elected officials are coming on-line in those calls and will be pushing that need. We want that message getting to our governor's office," he said. 

White said the public should expect that all official communications about this emergency will be issued jointly by the participants, which include all of the local governments and several related agencies. 

Those who are not yet signed up for the Code RED automated alert system are encouraged to do so through the county and city websites. 

Citizens also should monitor the government websites and social media sites, as well as those of trusted local news sources. 

Call ahead

New protocols are being put into place at the Camden Campus of Southeast Georgia Health System and with the county's first-responders to further prevent the spread of the illness. 

Those who experience flu-like symptoms are urged to call the Department of Public Health hotline at (844) 442-2681, rather than going to the emergency room or doctor's office or calling 911.  

"People who think they have flu-like symptoms should call ahead. If it is not an emergency, do not call 911. Most people get through this with common, flu-like symptoms," White said. "We don't want our system overwhelmed because then we can't deal with other emergencies." 

Those who do call 911 with flu-like symptoms will be asked a series of questioned to screen them before they interact with health care workers or paramedic/EMTs. The health system is also revising intake procedures to reflect those concerns. 

White said he feels the county is getting adequate support from the state agencies. 

"The Georgia Department of Public Health is truly geared up and we have excellent communications with them," he said. "(The availability) of testing is an issue and it’s not just an issue locally, if anyone has been paying attention. All of that has been a challenge, but it is getting better."

White said drive-thru testing is in the works and eventually would be offered locally.  

"(The GDPH is) truly on the firing line," White said. "Their role may be supportive in other disasters (like hurricanes), but in a public health emergency, they are in a leadership role. They are clearly being challenged in unprecedented ways."

The virus is already creating a few hot spots in Georgia, but at least this allows the state to learn from those places and help areas like Camden be more prepared for the future, he added.  

Stay home

Public health experts are advising people to stay out of crowds of more than 10 people for at least the next few weeks. Those who are above the age of 60 or those with underlying health conditions should take additional precautions to avoid others and public places. 

The state of Georgia has not mandated restrictions on private businesses, like restaurants and clubs, as Florida has done, but White said similar mandates eventually may be imposed here.  

"This is a public health emergency and I think the local board of health and the board of health of the state and the governor's office are looking at this. They are looking at other states and what they are doing," he said. 

White said they would hope to see a high level of "self leadership" in situations like this. 

"If you run a business and having a gathering, we want you to understand that it may be contrary to that (public health) guidance," White said. 

He added that many businesses are finding ways to still serve their customers, like drive-thru and delivery services. He urged them to communicate with customers and be innovative, if possible, to keep things running. 

"With every problem, there have got to be some creative solutions for dealing with it," White said. 

Those who continue to congregate in large groups may worsen the public health emergencies in ways they don't even realize.  

"I need everybody to help," White said. "The healthy young person who thinks this isn't an issue for them is wrong. We want to make sure these resources are available for anybody who needs them." 

Supply chain

White also wants local citizens to understand that local and state governments are working closely with major retailers, grocers and others within the supply chain to ensure that basic items will be available in stores for local shoppers. 

Some items have been cleared out due to "panic shopping," but he said stores have continued to be restocked. 

"Right now there are no critical shortages, but things are quickly depleting as they are being restocked. We are hearing that it is normal rhythm and normal supply for most of our stores," White said. 

He said the public and private sectors will work together to make sure that the basics, like gas, food and water remain readily available.

"We would make sure that we can get anything our public needs ... but right now there is no shortage and the supply system is working," he said.  

Business effects

The Georgia Chamber began last Friday emailing out short vitality surveys to business and organizations across Georgia. So far, the poll results from Monday report  35 percent of member businesses were stopping some or all of their operations. The other 65 percent were still up and running on Monday with 40 percent responding that they were confident they have enough capital to keep up operations for a year. 

The Camden County Chamber of Commerce president Alison Shores said Wednesday that local members are not as optimistic. 

"Local businesses appear to be facing a 40-50% decline in revenue caused by the inability to deliver services to their customers due to fear and cautionary social distancing. The overriding concern among most is maintaining payroll," Shores said.   

With business traffic greatly diminished over the past week, she added, one local chamber member reported that they could maintain payroll for their eight employees for four weeks but beyond that they would be dipping into savings.      

"The challenge of making payroll with less revenue is also the ability to keep and look after their current workforce. One member stated that, 'It is a great responsibility when you know five or more families are depending on you,'" Shores added. 

The lodging industry has suffered a nearly 100-percent decline. 

"That reality may not register with households that receive federal, state or local county/municipal generated income. The chamber feels now more than any other time, it is important to 'keep it [business] in Camden,’” Shores said.

Bill Shaffer, who owns 401 West Restaurant in St. Marys, was among those who made the tough decision to close. 

"There is no doubt that these are trying times and the impact on everyone will be felt long after the virus has settled," Shaffer said. "It is important that when a worldwide problem comes to our doorstep, our local voice and leadership rings louder and more unifying than any national media platform."