A health care worker commutes to work in Macon on Wednesday, April 15.
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A health care worker commutes to work in Macon on Wednesday, April 15.

As parts of the country prepare to resume more normal operations, Macon-Bibb County has not seen the worst of COVID-19.

“We expect our surge to be some time now in mid-May,” Medical Center, Navicent Health, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Patrice Walker told the Macon-Bibb County Board of Health during a teleconference meeting Monday morning.

At 132 infections for every 100,000 residents, Bibb County cracked the the top twenty list of Georgia counties for per capita infections. Bibb County, like the rest of the top counties for per capita infections, is also majority African American. 

Due to a number of issues, Bibb County’s reporting of positive test results have been taking up to about 10 days, Dr. Renee Haynes.

Last week, Gov. Brian Kemp’s office raised concerns with local Macon-Bibb County leaders about the testing lag.

Macon-Bibb Commissioner Elaine Lucas has repeatedly questioned whether local factories and industries are doing enough social distancing to curtail spread.

Board members gave voice to fears the community might be a “powder keg” ready to blow.

“I just feel like… we’re not seeing the numbers yet and so it’s just scaring me to death,” said Lucas, who sits on the board of health.

Board member Ethel Cullinan also expressed concern that the health department is not doing contact tracing of those who are infected with this new coronavirus.

“Our numbers are lagging so much we have no way of knowing exactly how many cases or deaths,” Cullinan said. “I’ve seen we’ve had one death for weeks now and that doesn’t make any sense… especially when it’s hit the nursing homes. As I look at it as a person in the community, it’s very frustrating to not have the insight of what’s going on in the community.”

Dr. Walker explained that only one resident of Bibb County has died, but other patients have died while in the care of Medical Center, Navicent Health.

“We’ve had deaths but if they don’t live in Macon-Bibb that death goes back to where that person is from,” Walker told the board. “There are lots of nuances to how you have to look at these statistics.”

Citing patient confidentiality, Navicent has refused media requests to release specific case numbers and deaths from the local hospital. Other hospitals provide those statistics, but Navicent has failed to explain how releasing numbers would jeopardize patient identities.

Navicent is constructing 24 overflow care beds in a parking lot across the street from their emergency room. If Walker's projections and the timeline for construction are both correct, those beds should be ready by the time of the projected surge.

 

Dr. Haynes said the county is getting closer to reporting test results quicker but have been plagued with a number of complications.

The health department and Navicent Health have been collecting test samples but none of that testing is being done locally. Navicent has enlisted the support of Angel Flight volunteers to fly specimens to out of state labs to speed up results.

In recent weeks, symptomatic individuals have been tested first but now health care workers who have been exposed to the virus also will be tested.

“We’re hoping to expand the amount of people we can test when we get more testing supplies,” Haynes said. “We did have some logistic troubles in the beginning but I’m hopeful we’ll be getting 100 per day.”

Haynes said they discovered some of the labs were giving results to the patient and not the agency requesting the test. Health workers had to follow up to get all those results.

Plus, the Department of Public Health has to screen the data to make sure cases weren’t being reported twice and that the information was accurate.

“A fourth factor is manpower,” Haynes said. “We don’t have an abundance of staff in public health and to process that data does take manpower.”

The health department has assisted Vineville Internal Medicine in setting up testing at their location, Haynes said.

Brinson Orr, one Vineville Internal Medicine’s office managers, said they have been testing their patients for about a month and have completed hundreds of tests.

“We heard it was taking everybody a while,” Orr said. “It just overwhelmed the labs. Nobody was prepared for it and nobody could have been.”

Vineville recently had to overcome a shortage of testing swabs by securing some from a gynecologist’s office.

Orr is excited that Quest Labs has begun blood testing for COVID-19 antibodies which will let asymptomatic people know if they have been exposed to the virus and are now immune.

Mercer Medicine, the faculty practice arm of Mercer University’s School of Medicine, began testing for antibodies this week, said Charles Duffey, chief operating officer for Mercer Medicine.

Mercer’s COVID-19 testing began last week in rural southwest Georgia. Plans also are in the works to roll out testing in the Macon area this week, said Larry Brumley, Mercer’s Senior Vice President for Marketing Communications and Chief of Staff.

Duffey said Mercer Medicine is working with the health department while awaiting approval to use their research equipment to perform tests on-site.

“Ipsum has developed a software to use those,” Duffey said. “It really is a genius solution to what’s going on right now because those machines are everywhere.”

It’s Mercer’s goal to fill in the gaps in testing and “put this pandemic to be bed as quickly as we can,” he said.

The health department no longer is requiring test referrals to come through a health care provider. Individuals with symptoms are eligible for COVID-19 testing and can call 1-844-987-0099 to request a test. That hotline is staffed Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. – 7 p.m. and from 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

Once a caller is evaluated, a testing appointment will be made for the most convenient specimen collection site, which includes a drive-thru operation in Bibb County.

The patient is given a Person Under Investigation or PUI number and will be referred to a testing site.

Priority still will be given to health care workers, first responders, law enforcement and long-term care facility residents and staff.

Cullinan is hoping more on-site testing will give an accurate picture of the spread of the deadly virus.

She and Lucas questioned whether enough is being done to educate employers and those working closely in factory settings.

“One case is really all you need in one of those environments,” Cullinan said. “They’ll talk to three people who talk to three people and then it will explode in 10 to 12 days.”

The board approved a resolution urging Macon-Bibb County leaders and the governor to use “extreme caution” when deciding when to reopen non-essential businesses.

Lucas wants corporations to strictly follow guidelines to slow the spread, such as regular temperature checks, social distancing and proactive disinfecting procedures.

Board member Chris Tsavatewa stressed the public needs to understand that a global pandemic is not a “one and done kind of thing.”

“People are not thinking of the consequences and the next steps of a pandemic. There is a wave and a cycle,” he said. “Social distancing has worked. It’s imperative we maintain responsible behavior.”

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or fabian_lj@mercer.edu.

 

Coronavirus infections over time in Macon-Bibb County. Data: Georgia Department of Public Health
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Coronavirus infections over time in Macon-Bibb County. Data: Georgia Department of Public Health