By Natalie Simms
After a nearly 2-hour discussion between Rome City and Floyd County Commissioners as well as medical officials from NWGA Public Health, Floyd Medical Center, Redmond Regional Medical Center and Harbin Clinic, it was clear the majority believe a public mask mandate is necessary to help curb the increasing number of COVID cases in the community. However, officials had no easy answers on how to enforce such a mandate if it were passed.
Medical officials shared some alarming news, but also some good news on what they are seeing now as compared to the beginning of the pandemic in March.
“We are seeing a spike now…its a continuation of the first wave, not a second wave. All health districts across the state have seen a rapid increase, the most being in the metro Atlanta area. We were seeing about 1,000 cases a day and now its more than 2,500 cases a day. We cannot sustain this,” says Dr. Gary Voccio, director of NWGA Public Health district.
“The good news is that the death rate is going down. But we are seeing more younger folks test positive. Six weeks ago, the average age was 55 years old and now the average age is 42 years old,” he says. “We have to come to terms with this as a community because we are going to see more cases and more deaths if we can’t stem this increase. We need to continue social distancing and I strongly recommend wearing masks.”
Of those 2,500 tests, Voccio says approximately 8% are positive and over those positives, about 1% are hospitalized. Voccio did not have a figure on how many local positive patients were asymptomatic, but says the CDC reports approximately 30% of positives are asymptomatic.
Voccio gives ‘kudos’ to the Public Health nurses at testing sites. “Our nurses are great and do the test in about one minute versus sites in Atlanta that wait for hours because it takes so long to do the test. We’ve had about 5% of those being tested here come from out of town because it is faster.”
While both Floyd and Redmond are seeing a spike in cases over the last week, officials say the patients are not as sick as those who presented in March.
“From March to May, our average age of COVID patients was 80 years old and it is 61 years old and they are less acutely ill. Right now we have six COVID patinets, three in critical care and three in our med/surg area, ranging in age from 45 to 79 years old. All are in stable condition. We are very stable overall at Redmond…we screen everyone upon entry into the hospital, we require masks to be worn and continue to limit visitors,” says John Quinlivan, CEO of Redmond.
“I encourage you to mandate masking. I think it’s important and I’m not one for a lot of government mandates. I think masks are the least restrictive…we need to still be open, but we can still operate safety with masks. We’re likely to be in this for some time, so this is our best option.”
Kurt Stuenkel, president and CEO of Floyd Medical Center, says their numbers are changing almost by the hour.
“The virus is different in patients now than in March. In March, patients were much sicker than they are now. We have three on ventilators right now and had 10 to 12 on them in March,” he says. “Why is that? I think age because we are seeing it in younger people and we have more therapies to offer now. We know more about it now than we did in March. More patients are being discharged quickly, which is good news. Bad news is that cases are going up because folks are not social distancing or wearing masks.”
Both Quinlivan and Stuenkel say no hospital staff members have contracted COVID from a hospital source, so their safety measures are effective.
Kenna Stock, CEO of Harbin Clinic, says all employees are required to wear masks and patients are encouraged to wear them as well. “We are seeing more coming in not wearing masks,” she says. “I think if there was a mandate message in the community, it would help.”
County Commissioner Allison Watters posed the question “Who enforces this if we impose a mask mandate?” She says, “I don’t want to overwhelm 911 or our police force or the small businesses. It seems virtually impossible to enforce, especially for county folks…we are geographically challenged from an enforcement standpoint.”
Both County Manager Jamie McCord and City Manager Sammy Rich say both police departments are short staffed. McCord says Floyd County Police is down 6-8 officers now and Rich says the City is down 13 officers.
“It’s a tough time to be in policing…we’re very short staffed and it would be hard to enforce,” says Rich.
Some say enforcement would depend on businesses requiring masks to be worn in their business. Many voiced the need for more education on importance of wearing masks. County Commission Chair Scotty Hancock says the County would look for funds to help market and educate the community on importance of wearing masks.
So, what’s next?
Most commissioners voiced support for a mask mandate or requirement.
“As a Board, we are all behind wearing masks…whether it’s with a mandate or requirement or education…it’s something we will decide on Tuesday,” says Hancock.
Mayor Bill Collins says he supports a mask mandate. “With the numbers going up, why wouldn’t we want to do all we can to protect all of our citizens.”
City Commissioner Mark Cochran agrees, “We’ve already had a quarantine and shutdown and then social distancing and masks. We can’t shutdown again. I am a strong proponent of masks…that is really the only option we have left.”
City Commissioner Craig McDaniel thinks education is key. “Only about 8% of tests are positive. We knew the numbers would go up as we open up and get more people tested. The death rate is going down….less than 1% of our population has tested positive. Maybe we give masks and sanitizer to local businesses to encourage business owners to help…educate them on use of masks, but we can’t overburden them.”
Commissioners encouraged McCord and Rich to reach out to Savannah or other communities that have passed mask mandates to get feedback on enforcement and compliance.
The Rome City Commission will discuss and vote on recommendations during its Monday, July 13 meeting at 6:30 p.m. The County Commission will discuss and vote during its meeting on Tuesday, July 14 at 6 p.m.
Also of note, the Commissioners did hear from Rome City Schools Superintendent Louis Byars and Floyd Superintendent Dr. Jeff Wilson on return to school plans.
Byars says Rome City Schools are planning to start back Aug. 3 with in-person instruction or virtual learning academy. Students would be able to drop or add the virtual option anytime during the school years. Masks will be mandatory for all students at the beginning of the school year. “They can’t get on the bus without wearing a mask,” says Byars.
Wilson says Floyd County Schools is still finalizing plans. He says, “Face-to-face instruction, five days a week is best. We have not made a decision on masks yet. We have a lot of parents that are not on board with it and will not make their child wear a mask. We may look at delaying the start of the school year by a few days. Most of our bus drivers and cafeteria staff are 60 years or older. We’ve got to figure out how to do things safely for everyone.”