Metro Atlanta hospitals are on high alert and trading information with public health departments. Local schools are using Lysol wipes in classrooms and devising contingency plans if they need to close. Businesses around Georgia are rethinking travel.
After weeks of watching the coronavirus mushroom across China, then spread to other parts of Asia and jump to other continents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now telling Americans they should prepare for potentially major disruptions to their daily lives.
In Georgia, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19, as the virus is officially known, and which can range from mild illness to pneumonia and death. But the CDC has confirmed 60 cases in the U.S., which include 45 people who were repatriated from Wuhan, China or the Diamond Princess cruise ship. And health authorities expect that number to grow.
Atlanta has the world’s busiest international airport, where more than 1,000 travelers already have been screened for coronavirus, according to airport general manager John Selden. About 200 people have been put into self-quarantine at their homes after returning to Atlanta from China, he added.
Many of the major players trying to contain the outbreak are based here - including Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who has become the public face of the federal agency’s containment efforts in recent weeks.
Messonnier, who lives in metro Atlanta, said Tuesday she told her family they are not at risk right now but called her children’s school district about what would happen if schools need to close. And while she said it was too early to tell how severe the outbreak will be in the U.S., she recommended businesses make contingency plans for employees to work from home.
Gov. Brian Kemp said he’s participated in two calls with President Donald Trump’s team and leaders from public health agencies and governors. He said he’s also in touch with county officials.
“We’ll be ready for whatever comes. Hopefully it won’t be much, but if it, is we’ll be ready to respond to it,” Kemp said Wednesday.
If coronavirus comes to Georgia, the state Department of Public Health will lead the charge against it. It said Wednesday it will adapt its detailed pandemic flu plan for a COVID-19 outbreak and that epidemiologists are on call 24/7 to help health care providers evaluate individuals with symptoms.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s office said Wednesday it is “encouraging private employers to review and update, if necessary, work continuity plans.” Metro area school districts began sending out emails to parents, encouraging hand hygiene, coughing into the elbow and staying home if sick.
Some of the coordination among authorities appeared still to be in the early stages. The Georgia Association of Primary Health Care represents dozens of Federally Qualified Health Clinics across the state. As of Wednesday afternoon it had not yet received information on coronavirus protocols from its usual sources, the Bureau of Primary Health Care and the CDC, said executive director Duane Kavka. But he said he expected to soon.
Preliminary reports suggest the fatality rate of the new coronavirus is between 1% and 3%, which would make it far less deadly than the related pathogen SARS, which killed 10% of people infected. But there are no vaccines or proven treatments for COVID-19. The new strain also appears to be more contagious than the flu, which kills tens of thousands of Americans each year.
Curtis Harris, director of the University of Georgia’s Institute for Disaster Management, said hospitals and health care facilities in the state have plans for sudden increases in patients, such as converting offices into treatment space. He said Georgia officials and health care facilities already communicate closely about how to limit outbreaks, including steps as simple as isolating patients with symptoms. Health care organizations and officials in seven Southeastern states did training exercises late last year about how to deal with a U.S. outbreak of Ebola, which has a much higher mortality rate.
But space and surge capacity is a “perennial problem” at medical facilities, he added. If a large number of people are sick, isolating and quarantining patients may not be feasible. Experts point out they may need to turn to telemedicine and triage, hospitalizing only the most critically ill.
Dr. José Cordero, the department head of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department at UGA, added it’s a good idea to get a flu shot — if you haven’t already — to avoid illness and using up medical resources. He recommended families and friends discuss emergency contingency plans for helping each other with everything from child care to meal sharing. And, he added, it may be sensible to have a couple weeks to a month’s worth of food supplies.
The potential outbreak comes as the state’s health department faces budget cuts along with the rest of state government. In recent budget hearings, some lawmakers and witnesses said they feared cuts to epidemiology, immunization, infectious disease control and county public health department grants could hurt a future coronavirus response.
That includes Dr. Robert Geller, medical director of the Georgia Poison Control Center, who said the center answers a public health hotline and then alerts epidemiologists of potential outbreak cases. If coronavirus sweeps Georgia, Geller said, even restoring the budget cut wouldn’t do: “We’ll need more money, not less money.”
Georgia’s health department pushed back, saying a $49,000 cut to Geller’s center was a fraction of its $1.2 million budget. That and the other cuts would come out of unrelated expenses such as a consultant whose work was complete, it said.
Cody Hall, a spokesman for Kemp, said budget cuts “do not in any way affect the Department’s ability to respond to a potential coronavirus case here in Georgia.”
Eric Toner, a senior scholar at The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the U.S. overall is “reasonably well prepared” for a mild pandemic, although even a mild one could put stress on emergency departments and intensive care units.
He added the toll on hospitals would be much greater if the virus is particularly deadly, such as during the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. and millions around the world.
“No hospital is well prepared for that,” Toner said, adding “a lot of people would not have the access to critical care they would need to keep them alive.”
But most people wouldn’t need that kind of care, he said. The risk to the average healthy individual likely would still be relatively low, with most people having flu-like symptoms and recovering quickly, he predicted.
-staff writers Kelly Yamanouchi and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.