Commentary: 365 days and 567 local deaths later, Northwest Georgia is at a coronavirus divide. Where will we be 12 months from today?

Commentary: 365 days and 567 local deaths later, Northwest Georgia is at a coronavirus divide. Where will we be 12 months from today?

A year ago today, medical teams at Floyd Medical Center were confronting the worsening condition of a Polk County woman. She was sick but they weren’t sure exactly with what. They would learn she had just returned from a conference in Washington, D.C. They tested, consulted and continued to investigate. Here’s how Floyd shared the case:

“Late Thursday evening (3/5/20) Floyd received notification from Georgia Department of Public Health that a patient in our hospital has preliminarily tested positive for Coronavirus COVID-19.

John Druckenmiller is president and publisher of Hometown Headlines Inc.

“A 46-year-old female presented to Floyd’s Emergency Care Center with flu-like symptoms on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020.  The patient was screened according to CDC and GDPH screening guidelines and was subsequently treated and released. She did not meet the testing criteria for COVID-19 or warrant hospitalization.

“The patient returned to Floyd’s Emergency Care Center on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, with worsening symptoms. Further tests were completed, GDPH was notified and subsequently authorized her release. Despite the patient, again, not meeting COVID-19 screening criteria, Floyd clinicians made the determination to admit her to the hospital due to her condition.

“The patient was placed in isolation and further screening was conducted. At the adamant urging of the attending physician and District Health Director Dr. Gary Voccio, CDC and GDPH authorized COVID-19 testing for the patient. The preliminary test result was deemed positive. Additional confirmatory testing is being performed and results from CDC are anticipated in the coming days.”

Never identified, the Polk woman became Northwest Georgia’s first known COVID patient. On the same day her case was verified, the state also recorded the first death from the virus, this one in metro Atlanta. As of Sunday, 15,067 have died, including 567 residents from Floyd, Bartow, Gordon,  Polk and Chattooga counties as well as another 71 “probable deaths” caused by the virus. Nearly 817,000 cases have been recorded in Georgia, including 31,397 here.

In 12 months, the pandemic has changed everything. Masks, social distancing, scores of testing, vaccinations and a very expanded vocabulary of medical terms most of us never knew existed.

The virus has broken people. It has taxed healthcare workers, educators and our clergy beyond their limits. It has powered political factions to a point where some downtown Rome businesses proudly display signs rebelling against the city’s mask mandate even while area doctors tell of daily Face Time calls to relatives as their loved ones die. We’ve also seen:

  • Those masks required to enter indoor school sporting events the past few months don’t stay on much past the ticket table, again evident from fan and staff photos from the weekend state basketball playoff photos. School quarantines of students and staff are climbing again.
  • Church congregations have split as in-person services were stopped to protect the faithful. Congregations are meeting outdoors in parking lots or via live stream and Facebook. But some want back inside their familiar places of worship. One local church returned to the pews, only to see the pastor and dozens of members come down with coronavirus. Others are slowly returning even as online worship has broadened their audiences.
  • And perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching stories, played out daily at more than 30 longterm healthcare facilities in Northwest Georgia, is the separation of those residents from their families. The isolation was needed as those campuses became hot spots for virus outbreaks — and deaths.
  • We’ve also endured all the funeral services conducted with just a handful of family and friends, many moved to Facebook Live to share with larger audiences. Or the coroner’s office swamped with dozens and dozens of bodies, perhaps 40 percent of which are attributed to COVID. Or hospital wards and new spaces quickly converted to negative pressure rooms as patients swamped area healthcare centers. In early January, 163 COVID patients were at Floyd and Redmond Regional medical centers. Through it all, Floyd has yet to put the enclosed garage into service. The 20 mobile beds in the containers in the other parking lot? They became a COVID ward.
  • We’ve seen Floyd County commissioners reject a mandatory mask mandate, citing a lack of possible enforcement — a claim that hasn’t slowed anti-litter or texting-while-driving campaigns. Or is it because, as one elected official told us early on, mask wearing easily identifies someone as being a “liberal.”  Even Rome’s City Commission was, at first, divided when considering a mask ordinance. But that opposition quickly went away as some of the commissioners saw family and friends die. The mask ordinance has been extended by unanimous vote since and is up again March 8.
  • The state response has been just as divisive. Gov. Brian Kemp ended the state lockdown, saying Georgia needed to get back to work to save the economy. As he now presents himself as the leading vaccine advocate with almost daily press conferences and news releases (including Sunday), listen to what he isn’t mentioning: the state’s escalating death count. February, at 28 days, was the second deadliest month of the pandemic in Georgia. January, because of the Christmas surge, was the first.

Thankfully, there are positive signs.

  • COVID patients counts at Redmond Regional Medical Center and Floyd Medical Center were down to 55 people as of Friday from a peak of 163 in early January. And yet, on June 1 as the lockdown was being lifted, the patient count at both hospitals was two COVID patients.
  • There also have been “positive” stories from the pandemic, including “Mr. Miracle,” 83-year-old Ted Thomas who earned a standing ovation as he prepared to leave Redmond Regional after six weeks of battling coronavirus. Similar success stories were reported at Cartersville Medical Center and elsewhere, including rousing high-fives as patients were released to their homes to complete their recoveries.
  • New cases reported from across Northwest Georgia likewise have dropped from post-Christmas highs. But also remember all those free COVID testing sites have closed as well, effective last week. Prior to that, testing sites were reduced from daily to weekly. Public Health says the decision to stop the free tests was in part because resources were needed to vaccinate Northwest Georgians.
  • And that is the next big hope: More than 26,000 area residents have already received both doses of Moderna or Pfizer vaccinations. Most are in the first phase to be vaccinated — healthcare workers, longterm care facility residents, first responders and those 65 and older. After a bumpy start, the process is improving daily.
  • There’s even the first church-based vaccination event set for this Saturday: Lovejoy Baptist Church at 436 Branham Ave. SW in Rome will be the site of the clinic, from noon until 4 p.m. in association with Floyd. It is for those in that first phase only; teachers become eligible two days later, on March 8. Registration is not required.

So now the focus turns to spring events: high school and college graduations, minor league baseball with the Rome Braves with expected attendance control, summer vacations, maybe bigger weddings delayed until better days. All will be tempered by the success of the vaccinations, continued social distancing, mask wearing and other safety steps. New strains create new concerns so no one is sounding an all-clear as yet.

But what hasn’t changed is this: As we begin a second year of the pandemic, Northwest Georgia remains a divided community: Some taking steps to help save their neighbors and friends, and others indignant to the death counts, exhausted healthcare teams and fractured families. We don’t think there’s a vaccine to fix that.

Adding to existing challenges is some reluctance from people to get the vaccinations. Education campaigns are continuing to answer questions from those still in doubt. We’re rapidly entering the next round of elections as well with a very full ballot expected for statewide and congressional races in 2022. Those races will further politicize the pandemic, even if the country is able to reduce the spread.

For now, in this new COVID year, many of us continue to watch the critical battles involving a Polk County sergeant and a popular Rome small business owner. All are hopeful and prayerful they make recoveries. With vaccines and experimental drugs and breakthrough treatments, we’ve made uncanny progress but not enough. Just ask the families of the law officer and businessman. The best defense is the continuing efforts to stop the virus from touching that next person.

No one wants to repeat what we’ve been through over the last 365 days. The question is, where will we be 12 months from now?

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