A dire warning from the hospital has prompted Glynn County commissioners to call an online meeting at 10 a.m. today to discuss, among other possible subjects, measures to further restrict gatherings.

The Southeast Georgia Health System sent a letter to the commission Tuesday recommending placing limits on “non-essential activities” to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

The letter, signed by SGHS President Michael Scherneck, chief of staff Erick Bournigal, infectious disease chief Steven Mosher and board member Stephen Chitty, asked the commission to consider adding further restrictions to those imposed by Gov. Brian Kemp in an executive order on Monday.

“As we have seen in nearby communities, social gatherings, including funerals and church services, have been the source of outbreaks that have resulted in a number of deaths and hospitalizations, taxing their local healthcare resources,” they state in the letter.

Available data suggests the disease will continue to spread, health system officials say.

The health system tested 171 patients and only received results for 42 due to nationwide delays in testing as of Monday.

Of those, 16 inpatients were under investigation and medical personnel were using “significant amounts” of the hospital’s limited personal protective equipment supply to care for them.

“Thus far, the counties in Southeast Georgia have had a manageable number of confirmed cases, most of which were able to be treated by home quarantine,” Scherneck said in a later interview. “But as is very evident, without strict adherence to social distancing practices a localized COVID-19 outbreak could very easily occur.”

If a local outbreak were to occur, it would undoubtedly spell an exponential increase in patients seeking attention at both SGHS hospitals, he explained.

“Our goal at this juncture needs to be preventing the introduction of the virus, and to the extent possible, minimizing the opportunity for it to spread throughout the community,” Scherneck said. “It is for this reason that our Health System has adopted such strict visitation policies.”

One only needs to look to Albany in Dougherty County where the Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital is struggling to handle a large influx of cases.

“The impact that the outbreak has had on Phoebe Putney hospital in Dougherty County is a stark reminder as to just how quickly a health care provider’s resources can be strained,” Scherneck said.

As of noon Tuesday, Dougherty County had 90 active COVID-19 cases, the third highest of Georgia’s 159 counties. Fulton had the most at 184, followed by DeKalb with 94.

“Even with the supply resources being brought to bear through the state of Georgia, it is clear that an outbreak such as that which has already occurred in Georgia would place our (Brunswick and Camden County) hospitals, and for that matter any hospitals throughout the state of Georgia and the nation, in an extremely precarious position,” he said.

All the work the health system has done to get ready for an outbreak may be irrelevant if the number of infected persons exceeds its capacity, the health officials said.

“Even with extensive preparation, if we see a large surge of patients consistent with the rate of spread in other affected areas, we — like any health system — will be challenged to bring to bear the appropriate staff, equipment and supplies to care for our community,” the letter reads.

The health system hopes further restrictions on gatherings will slow COVID-19’s spread to the point where the hospital isn’t burning through supplies faster than it can treat patients.

While the hospital did not give any specific examples, it noted that funerals and church services have been responsible for some cases of the virus spreading from person to person.

“It is our understanding that several cases in Dougherty County can be traced back to two funeral services and several cases in and around Floyd County can be traced back to a church choir group gathering,” Scherneck said. “Given the extent of the outbreaks in those areas, our health system strongly recommends that social distancing guidelines be strictly followed, even in those understandably sensitive situations such as church services and funerals.”

Floyd County had 11 active cases as of noon Tuesday.

Commission chairman Mike Browning said he had asked the hospital for its input and that the letter was well received by county leadership.

“My answer is, the (commission) will have to meet, and we will be meeting soon to discuss these kinds of things in regards to what action the (commission) takes,” Browning said.

He said he’d heard from more people worried about the disease spreading at weddings and funerals rather than church services and wasn’t sure the commission would need to restrict those.

“How that plays into, if it plays into, addressing the concerns of the commissioners here, we’ll have to see. It may be that what the governor ordered at five o’clock (Monday) satisfies these concerns,” Browning said.

“Personally, I think the governor’s directive covers church services ... Is it good enough for the commissioners? That’s a good example. Is the governor’s directive specific enough for the commissioners?”

Due to the outbreak, the meeting will be held remotely and broadcast online to Glynn County’s Facebook and YouTube accounts.

In other coronavirus news:

• A fifth patient tested positive for COVID-19 in Glynn County. The number of infections in the eight-county Coastal Health District rose to 19 on Tuesday, with Bryan County seeing its first two cases of the disease. As of 7 p.m. Tuesday, Chatham County was reporting seven cases, Effingham three and Camden and Liberty one each. The remaining counties, McIntosh and Long, had reported none.

• The Glynn County Board of Health also called on the county commission to take a more aggressive stance on public gatherings and social distancing.

• The Coastal Resources Division of the Department of Natural Resources is suspending beach water quality testing in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.

• The mayors of Atlanta and Savannah issued stay-at-home orders, requiring residents to remain in their residences unless carrying out essential tasks or working essential jobs.

• Operations at the main entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge have been modified in response to the coronavirus. The wildlife refuge visiting hours have been reduced to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday but the visitor center is closed until further notice. Onsite concessions will offer carryout lunches from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on days the refuge is open but no other services, including boat tours, will be offered. All overnight camping reservations are canceled and refunds will be issued. New camping reservations are not being taken at this time. For more information go to fws.gov/refuge/ okefenokee.

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