Dr. Gary Voccio of NW Georgia Public Health: Too early to finalize fall school plans. When classes resume, ‘It will be very different than what it was in the past’ with distancing, maybe masks.

Dr. Gary Voccio of NW Georgia Public Health: Too early to finalize fall school plans. When classes resume, ‘It will be very different than what it was in the past’ with distancing, maybe masks.

Dr. Gary Voccio addresses Rome Rotary and Seven Hills Rotary via Zoom on Thursday afternoon.
Dr. Gary Voccio, director of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Northwest District, was the main speaker at a joint meeting of Rome Rotary/Seven Hills Rotary this Thursday (via Zoom).  Below are some of the highlights from the discussion. We apologize but our recording of the session didn’t work.
  • Voccio shared has testing sites here have expanded to eight locations. Before, the average was 30 to 40 tests a day; today, it is up to 200 to 250 tests a day.
  • The positive rate from those tests is around 5 to 6 percent — good numbers, he says. The state average would mirror that except for the hot spots such as Albany and other locations.
  • Talks about some of the research under way including plasma therapy and other techniques that are being tested to help patients.
  • Overall numbers are declining, he says, pointing to cases per 100,000 population. Bartow spiked because of the “super spreader” event which was that March 1 service at The Church at Libery Square.
  • He commended both Redmond Regional and Floyd Medical Center for being “well prepared.” It helped “get us out of this crisis” thanks to proactive steps.
  • Answered a question about whether a recovered patient is immune from relapse. He said that has not been proven.
  • Question about schools reopening in the fall? Voccio: “Boy that is a tough question … it depends on what we see in the community…. think it will be a community decision.” Says social distancing, masks will be involved. Sees “a different way of housing students.” Doesn’t see the decision being finalizes in the next couple of weeks but perhaps later this summer. Bottom line: “It will be very different than what it was in the past.”
  • Question about vaccines. Voccio: “We won’t know until we have another outbreak of this.” Wonders if COVID-19 will be like Ebola or HIV. “I’m not very optimist about a vaccination at this time.”
  • Question about the 1918 flu outbreak and whether “herd immunity” helped beat it. He points to what happened in Philadelphia and St. Louis during that era.
  • Question about possible pandemic waves theory: Voccio says the commissioner is aware of a potential second wave and that Voccio himself is predicting that. One scare is if we see a double hit by the flu and COVID-19 during the winter months. Voccio predicts we’ll continue to see outbreaks.
  • Question about flu with several strains and just one of COVID. Can it mutate? Voccio doesn’t think coronavirus can or will mutate — at least not the way the flu does.
  • Question: Is there a West Coast and East Coast difference in the virus? Voccio: “I don’t know if that’s the case or not.”
  • Question about contact tracing. Voccio: Says district has seven epidemiologists and they try to trace a patient’s contacts for 48 hours or so to reach “all who have been in contact with that person.” Says our district will add epidemiologists in coming weeks. He repeatedly praised the current team.

Georgia Highlands’ Community Watch continues an excellent series of interviews concering the coronavirus pandemic, this week being joined by Dr. Gary Voccio, director of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Northwest District. Voccio, who also is the main speaker at a joint meeting of Rome Rotary/Seven Hills Rotary this Thursday (virtual), opened some eyes in our area with his recent guest column posted below.
Voccio, via Zoom, joins hosts Dr. Jon Hersey and Greg Shropshire.
He talks about signs of a flattening curve, of the “super spreader” outbreak after March 1 traced to The Church at Liberty Square, and the community response since the first case recorded at Floyd Medical Center.
Voccio talks how testing has greatly expanded in Northwest Georgia, from perhaps 40 a day to more than 200 a day. One issue has been the pace of getting test results back. “They’re all behind,” says Voccio, including private labs under contract as well as state resources.
Earlier Community Watch programs on the pandemic:
  • Rome Mayor Bill Collins and City Manager Sammy Rich on reopening the community. Click Opening.
  • Kurt Stuenkel, president and chief executive officer of Floyd Medical Center, on the pandemic and what’s next. Stuenkel.
  • Emergency Management Director Tim Herrington on the pandemic, the Easter storms and what’s next. Click Herrington

FROM FRIDAY
Statement from Dr. Gary Voccio, Georgia Department of Public Health:
 
Are we ready to open up? Doesn’t matter. We’re going to; we can’t exist otherwise. The real question is how we reopen in a way that gives us our best chance to stay open.
 
If we do it wrong, the pandemic will speed up again, our hospitals will get overrun again, and we’ll need to go into lockdown again. If we do it right, we can transition to a New Normal – a New Normal in which a lot of us will s-l-o-w-l-y get infected, and some of us will succumb. We need to understand that going in.
 
The lockdown hasn’t been healthy and not just for the economy. Someone with early-stage breast cancer didn’t get her mammogram today because of the pandemic. Someone having a heart attack was too worried to go to the ER for fear of catching coronavirus. Many of us are frightened and miserable, emotional states that are guaranteed to do well-documented damage to our health.
 
Still, perpetual lockdown is less deadly than reopening the state and our Northwest Georgia communities will be. We need to understand that going in too.
 
The virus hasn’t disappeared. It’s still circulating. We know more about it than we did several months ago, and we’re constantly learning more, but there’s still a lot we don’t know.
 
Ask yourself a few simple questions:
 
  • How many of us have been infected by Covid-19?
  • What is the fatality rate of this disease?
  • What percentage of those infected are asymptomatic?
  • If I’ve had it, am I immune?
The correct answer to all those questions is we don’t yet know and may not get all the answers.
 
We don’t have an effective treatment, although there are some promising developments. Unless we get lucky, we’re likely a year or two from having a vaccine – if we ever do. After many decades, we are still waiting for an HIV vaccine.
 
This virus caught the world off guard, and its trajectory is still highly unpredictable. We simply don’t know what the future holds and what the end game for controlling the pandemic will be.
 
We need to understand we’re only in the top of the 2nd inning of a nine-inning game, maybe just the bottom of the 1st. We need to realize we have a long road ahead of us.
 
As we reopen our Northwest Georgia communities, we expect to see an increase in virus transmission. We hope we’ll also see, as we saw at the beginning of the pandemic, people changing their behavior to wisely continue to protect themselves and, more importantly, unselfishly help protect others, especially those at highest risk of complications and death — older adults and those with severe underlying health conditions.
 
Public health is working hard to do more widespread testing to identify and isolate infected individuals so they do not infect others. That so many people with this virus have no symptoms complicates this process.
 
Our epidemiologists (think “disease detectives”) and other public health workers are doing around-the-clock contact tracing to identify others these sick people might have exposed to the virus, so they can be quarantined and monitored to help stop its spread.
 
The diagnostic testing (via a nasal swab) we’re doing identifies people currently infected with the virus, so we can begin our isolate-trace-quarantine process. As of April 30, we’ve tested 2,123 people, a tiny sliver of our Northwest Georgia population. This voluntary, random-but-screened testing has produced less than 5% positives (compared to a statewide number of about 17%).
 
It’s hard to read anything into these results other than that they may indicate the small percentage of our population that’s been exposed to and infected by the virus, another indication of just how far we have to go before the virus runs its course.
 
Eventually, we’ll need to ramp up serologic testing (via a finger prick) to determine who has had the virus and may – or may not – be immune. We’re not at that point yet, but we’re beginning to see serology tests being offered by some private providers and the CDC in certain locations.
 
FDA oversight of these tests is by emergency authorization, and test results vary widely in reliability. So, we caution people about relying on them to determine if they might have had the virus and possibly be immune.
 
We wish we’d had more testing capacity available in Northwest Georgia earlier in this crisis. We didn’t. Failure of foresight, faulty strategy, technical flaws, and regulatory hurdles led to a national coronavirus testing shortfall we are trying to resolve.
 
We do wish we had more people contacting us right now to be screened for free Covid-19 testing. For the moment anyway, we’ve got reasonable testing capacity and have four test sites set up in Bartow, Floyd, Paulding, and Walker counties. We will be opening more of “pop-up” sites, and you do not have to reside in the county where a test site is located to be tested.
 
Anyone with symptoms of Covid-19, such as fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, or lack of sense of smell or taste may receive free testing. We especially encourage anyone with symptoms and chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, lung problems, heart problems, or obesity, to call for screening.
 
We’re also providing free testing to people without symptoms, including healthcare workers, public safety workers, first responders, and other critical workers that may have been exposed to the virus while continuing to work during the shelter-in-place lockdown.
 
Administrators of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted-living communities, with at least one confirmed Covid-19 case are urged to contact us to arrange free testing for residents if this hasn’t already been done.
 
Our call center is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. People may call these number to be screened for testing:
 
706-802-5329
 
706-802-5885
 
706-802-5886
 
706-802-5888
 
So, we’re reopening. Even if we do it right, the decision to reopen the state and our Northwest Georgia communities without a treatment or vaccine is a decision to accept more illness and more death for the sake of resurrecting our economy sooner.
 
Right now, our two biggest non-pharmaceutical weapons against the virus are still hygiene and social distancing. Obviously, both require action on the individual level.
 
The government can’t wash your hands or decide for you not to go over to a friend’s house or remind you to call an elderly neighbor who’s home alone – but you can. You can also wear a non-surgical mask in public when you can’t practice recommended social distancing.
 
Whatever course this pandemic follows – waves, peaks-and-valleys, slow burn – we must be prepared for a lengthy period of significant Covid-19 activity with hot spots appearing sporadically. There is no safe way to emerge from our collective shelter-in-place orders and restart the economy before an effective Covid-19 vaccine arrives — but there are smart, science-based ways. Let’s work together to do it.
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