A nurse checks a temperature of an employee before he enters the Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Opinion: SW Ga. showing resilience in ongoing pandemic response

A community grows stronger through challenges, but in the midst of a pandemic in a small South Georgia county, how is strength derived and sustained in the face of a crisis that has no defined end? As County Commission Chairman, I have continued to contemplate this question since we began facing the coronavirus pandemic and rapidly ascended to the third-highest per-capita infection rate in the world.

Dougherty County is no stranger to disaster and adversity. In January of 2017, we were struck by hurricane force straight-line winds and an EF-3 wedge tornado, both of which caused tremendous devastation. Later that same year came the effects of Hurricane Irma and then the devastating impact of Hurricane Michael in 2018. Given this history, our people have a well-developed sense of resilience and strength. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is remarkably unique in the challenges it presents. It is a remarkable test of discipline, endurance, and vigilance.

The virus attacked us rapidly through events, where (through no one’s fault) large numbers of people were infected. We reacted quickly and decisively. We took swift executive action to close certain businesses and activities. We immediately began educating our public on concepts, such as social distancing, masking-up, and sanitation practices. We were one of the first counties to declare a state of emergency and to order citizens to shelter in place. Still, however, we were gripped by the exponential growth of the virus, which proliferated prior to us even being aware that it existed amongst us. We literally had to limit the number of people who could even attend funerals of those who had passed.

We worked hand-in-hand with the Governor’s office to seek resources for our hospital, attaining direct support from the CDC, and a team of public health epidemiologists. We convene regular task force conferences, where we discuss emerging trends, death and infection rates, scarcity of PPE, efforts to feed our children who are out of school, and compliance with local and state orders. We create and update high-level data charts that track the COVID-19 testing of all medical providers in our community.

Our hospital set up drive-thru testing sites and Public Health began aggressively testing first responders and medical workers. We set regular press briefings to educate our community and to share honest information regarding the death toll and infection rates. As I write this, we currently have lost 115 of our beloved citizens.

We have worked hard to provide brutally honest and transparent information regarding infection and mortality rates, while also sharing in the public’s grief and acknowledging the tremendous losses that we have suffered as a community.

We have provided updates from our chief elected officials, medical professionals, public health care workers, the school system, coroner, law enforcement, community groups, regional partners and others. We continue to stress social distancing and other techniques, which help flatten the curve. As March and early April progressed, things appeared daunting. We were steadily losing citizens and the black cloud draping over us appeared, at times, like it would not leave or diminish.

Endurance, discipline, and vigilance is our collective ethos. As a result, we are now seeing the curve flatten.

We have now, for the first time in three weeks, less than 100 COVID-19 patients in our hospital. We now have 42 citizens on respirators, whereas a few weeks ago, we had more than 70. We are seeing some success rate with respect to some patients being successfully removed from respirators. However, most do not make it. It is a difficult message to express to the public that they are doing a good job when so many are still dying.

Although we are flattening the curve, we are not where we need to be yet. With some businesses reopening, we are being even more careful. We continue to ramp up enforcement more than ever before to mitigate a second spike. We have prepared for this potential with increased hospital capacity, staffing, and hospital pods made available through the Governor’s office. We have educated businesses and encouraged them to make smart decisions. Many have chosen to stay closed. Some have reopened, but are doing so conscientiously. We have called upon retailers to require employees to mask up, to provide hand sanitizer stations, and one-way shopping down their aisles. When one walks into a grocery store here, it is difficult to recognize most because so many are shopping with masks.

What lessons can I share from our collective experience? At the top is to try and stay on top of the virus and its trends. Be demanding of data. Be transparent with the people. Take it seriously. Convene a task force of local leaders and stakeholders. Engage your faith-based community to reach out to those who have lost loved ones. Speak honestly with the people. Do not sugar-coat the facts. Take swift and decisive action and be willing to pivot as new trends emerge. Remain vigilant and remember: This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Christopher S. Cohilas is chairman of the Dougherty County Commission.

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