By Matt Aiken & Sharon Hall / The Nugget
Dave Palmer's cell phone rarely stops ringing these days.
But then that goes with the job, added the District 2 Public Health spokesperson. And it doesn’t look like that’s changing anytime soon.
“I don’t think we’ve reached the peak yet,” he said Friday after the number of local cases nearly doubled in Lumpkin County from 11 to 19. As of press-time those numbers stand at 26 confirmed cases with no deaths.
So what’s the reason for the increase?
A lot of factors, said Palmer. Some good, some bad.
“We’ve increased testing,” he said. “So any time that you start testing more people you are going to have more people show up positive. That’s one part of it.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that, of course, the virus is still on the move in Lumpkin County and throughout the state of Georgia.
“What we’re finding is the virus is here and it’s spreading,” said Palmer. “So we are having increased numbers of people.”
That was evident in the Lumpkin County School System last week as two employees were diagnosed with the disease.
On Friday, Superintendent Rob Brown issued a release informing the public that an employee who had assisted with the meal service program was diagnosed a few days earlier.
“The employee did not have any direct contact, but was in the work area with six other employees,” he told The Nugget. “All of those employees are under quarantine for 14 days.”
Then over the weekend, a second school system employee, who had not been on the job since the March 16 shutdown, was diagnosed as well.
“This employee did not show any symptoms, but was tested while having another procedure at the hospital,” said Brown. “The reality is that some people can be spreading the virus and not even know they are afflicted.”
Brown said the events of the past week really brought the reality of the virus close to home.
“We know this virus is having a significant impact on the people of our county in many different ways,” he said. “We should be praying for everyone impacted and we should be hopeful that we can return to our normal way of life soon.”
Meanwhile at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville a new normal has been setting in. There the facility have been crowded but not overwhelmed.
“We’ve increased our ICU bed capacity from 91 to 134,” said public relations director Sean Couch. “That’s been critical. If we didn’t have that expansion we’d likely be close to full.”
Though if a sudden surge were to occur then officials have a plan. And it's a plan in which Lumpkin County’s own hospital would play a critical role.
"Currently our plan, if we were to hit that surge, would be to try to care for those COVID patients as much as possible at our hospitals in Gainesville and Braselton - and move other [non-COVID] patients to Barrow and Lumpkin hospitals," said Couch.
Meanwhile, Palmer said the best way to keep the count down, and prevent such a surge, is for locals to continue to stay home as much as possible.
“The staying at home and social distancing seems to be working,” he said. “… I think the cases would be even higher if we weren’t doing those mitigation factors. Though I know it’s really tough on people to have to do that.”
On Monday, some of the state’s safety guidelines were loosened as Governor Brian Kemp announced that gyms, salons and bowling alleys will be allowed to resume operation. (See accompanying front page story.)
“Today’s announcement is a small step forward and should be treated as such,” said Kemp. “The shelter in place order is still active and will expire at 11:59 PM on April 30 for most Georgians.”
A few minutes after Kemp’s announcement a release was issued by Northeast Georgia Health System that stressed the severity of the situation facing local healthcare workers and their patients.
“Some people may think we are overstating the seriousness of the situation, and they’re anxious to get back to ‘business as usual,’” stated NGHS president and CEO Carol Burrell. “Trust me, as a non-profit, we understand that sentiment for many reasons. But our physician leaders, clinical experts and objective data all tell us now is not the time to relax. Rather, now is the time to continue to take every precaution we can.”