One case confirmed Monday; officials urge public to stay calm

Pierce County has its first reported case of coronavirus.

The Southeast Health District confirmed a local case Monday. However, area health officials appear to have the matter well in hand for now.

Due to patient privacy laws, health officials are not releasing further details regarding the patients’ age or sex.

Memorial Satilla Health and Georgia Physicians South have conducted COVID-19 tests. Appling Healthcare has not yet tested a patient for the virus at their local office.

Doctors work to eliminate other possible illnesses, such as the flu, before testing for COVID-19.

“We only have limited tests available so we are using clinical judgment on all cases,” says Dr. Brent Waters of Georgia Physicians South. “(We’re) testing all with fever for the flu, which we are still seeing a few per day. If they are low risk and not acutely ill, then we either treat for bronchitis or do a respiratory panel which takes two days to come back and rules in or out a lot of common respiratory viruses.”

Georgia Physicians South followed that procedure for the one COVID-19 test they’ve taken so far.

“We did a flu test and X-ray first, then did a simultaneous respiratory panel with the COVID-19 test which takes 3-4 business days to get back. The test is a nasal swab like a flu test but takes much longer to get back,” Waters explains.

Appling Healthcare physicians also rule out Flu A, Flu B and strep prior to moving forward with the COVID-19 protocol.

“We do have only a limited quantity of coronavirus tests, and those are to be utilized according to the CDC and Department of Public Health. Patients may have symptoms but may not necessarily be tested, as tests are to be administered according to those agencies’ guidelines. Our provider offices, emergency room physicians, and hospital physicians are all following the same testing guidelines,” says Malorie Harvill, marketing director for Appling Healthcare System.

State and federal health officials are prioritizing tests for “the most vulnerable populations and the people responsible for their care and safety.” Department of Public Health officials issued that statement last week.

People who do not have symptoms of COVID-19 do not need to be tested, nor do most people who are mildly or moderately ill with “cold-like” symptoms, health officials say.

The COVID-19 testing procedure is similar to a flu test, physicians say, but it takes days to get the results back. Flu test results are typically available within 15-20 minutes.

Memorial Satilla Health officials are assuring the public they are ready to care for the community should the virus spread to this region.

“Right now Memorial Satilla Health has the bed capacity, staffing, and supplies and equipment needed to care for our community. As a part of HCA Healthcare, a connected network of more than 1,800 sites of care, we have access to key resources from across the country,” says Bobby McCullough, hospital CEO.

Smaller primary care facilities may have challenges getting needed supplies, but Waters says Georgia Physicians South has what they need for now.

“We have had some issues getting masks, gloves, gowns and other personal protective equipment but we have enough for current volume,” Waters reported.

Appling Healthcare reports their supplies are in order for now.

“We currently have supplies and medications needed,” Harv ill says.

Most doctor’s offices are taking extra precautions to sanitize their offices more regularly and limit exposure to sick patients. Medical staff are washing their hands more often and using hand sanitizer regularly.

“We have asked sick patients to call when they get to the office and we either take masks out to them or assess them in their vehicle,” Waters says.

“Patients are showing concern as they should, but Appling Healthcare is taking extra precautions and we have implemented new procedures to protect the well-being and safety of our patients and staff,” Harvill agrees. “Patients are asked to call our office prior to arrival and patients are being triaged and screened on the phone or as they come into our office. Masks are given to patients who meet a certain criteria and they are placed in an isolated room. If a patient presents with COVID-19 symptoms a terminal cleaning is done after the patient leaves to ensure our office is sanitized to prevent the spread of germs. All staff are also being screened prior to their shift to ensure they are healthy and not showing any onset of symptoms.”

Last Friday, Memorial Satilla began limiting visitors from entering the facility.

Hospital visiting hours are now from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Patients may have one visitor at a time (including parent/guardian for minors receiving treatment). Children under the age of 12 will not be allowed in the facility unless receiving treatment.

Patients and visitors will continue to be screened at the door and patients will be isolated if they are showing any symptoms of COVID-19.  

Earlier in the month Memorial Satilla implemented new screening procedures for visitors and patients at the hospital, and limited entrance to three locations  — the Heart Center, emergency department and main entrance. Entrance is now limited to the Heart Center and ER.

“Our greeters ask basic questions to ensure that any individuals who might spread the virus get the care they need without exposing patients, staff and other guests. We did this out of an abundance of caution to protect our patients, guests and caregivers,” McCullough says. “We can all help our friends and neighbors by not coming to the hospital if we’re suffering from mild symptoms. This will allow hospitals to save supplies for patients that need emergency care.”

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever and cough. People exhibiting those symptoms should stay home and isolate themselves from others for at least seven days after their symptoms began or 72 hours after their fever has resolved and symptoms have improved.

According to the Department of Public Health (DPH), if you have been exposed to an individual with COVID-19, you must self-quarantine for 14 days and monitor for symptoms.

Local providers are offering the same preventive advice as state and federal health officials:

1. Stay away from non-essential public outings

2. Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer

If you are sick, stay at home unless symptoms become severe such as a high fever or shortness of breath. Then, contact your doctor and get evaluated, Waters advises.

 “There is no treatment for COVID-19, and people who are mildly ill are able to self-isolate and recover at home,” McCullough says. “If you have severe symptoms or are suffering from a medical emergency you should go to the ER or call 911.”

DPH issued these guidelines last week:

• Practice social distancing by putting at least 6 feet between yourself and other people.

• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

• Stay home if you are sick.

• Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water.

• Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

• Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

What if I’m pregnant?

Current coronavirus research shows no increased risk to pregnant women and the virus is not transmittable through the placenta to the fetus.

“If a pregnant woman were to contract the virus it wouldn’t be transmittable to the baby through the placenta. If a vaccine is developed it should be safe in pregnancy as is the flu vaccine,” says Dr. Michael Lynch, OB/GYN with South Georgia Physicians Group in Blackshear. “There’s nothing to do any different than anyone else.”

DPH offers several online methods for keeping up with COVID-19 developments: follow @GaDPH, @GeorgiaEMA, and @GovKemp on Twitter and @GaDPH, @GEMA.OHS, and @GovKemp on Facebook.

Governor Brian Kemp announced last week Georgia has a COVID-19 hotline: 1-844-442-3651.