An experimental drug for the treatment of patients who are critically ill with a COVID-19 infection is already in use at Floyd Medical Center.
The Department of Public Health announced several area hospitals — including Floyd, Redmond Regional Medical Center and Cartersville Medical Center — were among those that received shipments of remdesivir as part of an allotment from the federal government.
Floyd Medical Center received 80 vials of remdesivir, enough to treat seven patients for 10 days, said Floyd’s Director of Pharmacy Services Bobby Purcell.
The drug is only for critical patients with COVID-19 — for example patients on ventilators or those being treated with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a machine that takes over the work of the heart and lungs.
“It’s been shown to shorten the length of time a patient is in a critical care situation,” Purcell said.
There’s a limited quantity of the drug and they’ve only been approved to administer it in very specific situations.
“Not just anybody gets the drug,” said Chief Medical Officer Ken Jones. “The average COVID patient is definitely not a candidate for it.”
At this point the drug is still in experimental stages and has not been approved for widespread use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Medical professionals don’t know what, if any, the side effects of the drug may be.
Statewide, public health distributed approximately 18,440 more vials of the drug in its third shipment.
The first two shipments went to areas in Georgia that have been hard hit by the virus, primarily in the metro-Atlanta area and around Dougherty County. Those areas account for approximately half of the 1,973 Georgians who have been killed by the virus as of Thursday night.
Only three people who are COVID-19 positive are being treated at local hospitals. Meanwhile, the number of positive cases has been growing quickly.
Public health officials have partially attributed the growing number of cases to an increase in testing availability — especially for those with with no symptoms.
Until two weeks ago, the trend in Floyd County was relatively flat. But the numbers reported by the state public health agency have grown by over 95 cases in the past two weeks — coming close to doubling the number of local residents infected.
Floyd County had logged a total of 258 cases as of Thursday night, with 15 deaths.
Regionally, public health data shows there have been stark increases in population centers like Chattanooga and Dalton. Whitfield County has 322 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths, up drastically from weeks ago. Statistics show big increases in Hamilton County, Tennessee, as well.
Nationally, the United States has had over 100,000 coronavirus fatalities. More Americans have died from the virus than were killed in the Vietnam and Korean wars combined, according to the Associated Press.
Even with all those increases, locally people don’t appear to be taking the threat very seriously, Jones said.
“I’m concerned we’re relaxed here in Floyd County,” Jones said.
He described walking through a grocery store and seeing just a few people wearing masks. He recently spoke to a relative in hard hit Cobb County and it appears to be the opposite there. People shopping without masks on are more of the exception, rather than the rule.
While masks haven’t been shown to keep someone from getting the coronavirus, they have been shown to prevent the spread of the virus.
Another factor, and potentially a very dangerous one, Jones said, is that they’re not seeing people coming to hospitals to seek necessary treatment and they feel it’s out of concern for catching the coronavirus.
“The hospital is the safest place to be at,” Jones said. “We’re much safer than Walmart, Publix or Home Depot. We’re doing our best to practice prevention guidelines and are concerned that people are putting off seeing a doctor out of fear of COVID.”
They’ve seen a large drop in the report of heart attacks and strokes in the past few months.
“It’s not because there are less of those happening,” he said. “These are serious issues which require treatment.”
Gov. Brian Kemp moved Thursday to relax broad social restrictions in Georgia on bars, nightclubs, summer school classes and overnight summer camps in the coming weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Kemp also announced he will extend the public health emergency in Georgia through July 12, granting him powers to continue issuing executive orders.
The latest pulling back of business restrictions comes amid a bump in positive coronavirus cases in recent days — prompting caution from local health experts concerned about people returning too quickly to normal behavior.
At a news conference, the governor said “encouraging data” trends in the number of positive coronavirus cases and hospitalizations convinced him it was time to start slowly reopening more businesses across the state.
“We remain encouraged by the numbers that we are seeing in testing, hospitalizations and a wide variety of other data points across the state,” Kemp said.
In an executive order the governor signed Thursday, bars and nightclubs will be allowed to reopen starting June 1 after nearly two months of closures, so long as establishments meet strict rules.
Restrictions include limiting occupancy to 25 patrons or 35% of a building’s occupancy and only serving drinks to seated patrons or in designated areas.
Summer school classes will be allowed starting next month if schools can keep students separated in classrooms and routinely sanitize facilities. Overnight summer camps will be permitted starting May 31 under similar sanitizing and social distancing requirements.
Live performance venues will remain closed for the foreseeable future, though Kemp said he is working with businesses owners on a reopening plan.
Kemp also announced businesses like restaurants and other gathering spots will be allowed to have larger groups of up to 25 people if they keep six feet of space between them starting in June. The six-foot rule has applied for several weeks to groups of up to 10 people.
Additionally, the governor is allowing amusement parks, water parks, carnivals and circuses to reopen under several restrictions starting June 12.
Sports leagues will also be permitted to hold practices starting June 1 and must abide by guidelines that the leagues themselves have drafted, Kemp said.
As of 7 p.m. Thursday, more than 45,000 people had tested positive in Georgia for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. The virus had killed 1,973 Georgians, including 15 in Floyd County and 38 in Bartow.
Kemp and health officials attributed a bump in positive COVID-19 cases seen on the state Department of Public Health’s website in recent days to a large backlog of old test results the agency received from private labs over the weekend.
The state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, backed Kemp’s decision to ease business restrictions, citing the state’s bolstered testing capacity and the hiring of 800 contact tracers tasked with charting an infected person’s web of physical interactions.
“I felt very comfortable … particularly because the data trends have been staying very, very favorable,” Toomey said Thursday.
Ahead of Kemp’s news conference, leading health experts at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta urged people to continue keeping their distance from each other even as social restrictions begin to relax.
“This pandemic is not over just because a politician is saying it’s safe to get out,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, who chairs the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. “I think there are important economic decisions that need to be made, but what I would tell people is … take care of yourselves, practice social distancing, be careful.”
“The data tells me that I should probably continue sheltering in place,” he added. “I’m not ready to go to a restaurant yet.”
Del Rio, who previously criticized Kemp for waiting too long before ordering Georgians to shelter in place, said he expects to see positive COVID-19 cases rise as people interact with each other more and testing increases.
He and a colleague at Emory, Dr. Colleen Kraft, said people need to weigh how comfortable they are exposing themselves or family members to the virus.
Kraft, an associate chief medical officer at Emory, said the state should start gaining a better picture of whether cases are on the rise “within the next month.”
In the meantime, Kraft said Georgians should consider viewing their social habits within a “coronavirus circle,” by which she meant the number of other people someone could potentially expose by ignoring social-distancing practices.
“The bottom line is you need to be aware of keeping yourself safe and other people safe,” Kraft said Thursday. “We’re in a country of personal choices, but you need to be sure that you’re being respectful to other people and their medical fragility.”
The absence of a confirmed state budget for the next fiscal year is not keeping Rome City Schools from moving forward with its budget for the 2020-2021 school year.
A preliminary plan and budget request was unanimously approved by the school board during a special called meeting Thursday. It’s the first step in the process of getting the system’s budget approved by the Rome City Commission.
The request does not include an increase in the school’s portion of the city’s millage rate, which is set to remain at 17.450 mills.
Superintendent Lou Byars said they are expecting about a 6.3% increase in the property tax digest for a total of $21.4 million.
He told the board that it is unusual to not have the complete revenue numbers in at this time.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the suspension of the state legislature’s annual session in March. The Georgia General Assembly will not reconvene until mid-June and is not expected to pass a state budget until sometime in July.
That will leave local systems a short amount of time to finalize a budget for the 2020-2021 term that starts the first week of August.
Byars said he has spoken to city officials about having a “true up” after the end of the fiscal year next July, because the school system is estimating both its property tax collections and its state funding.
“If we underestimate our revenue, we don’t get all that we are due. If we overestimate, then the city gives us more than they collect,” Byars said. “What we’ll do is true-up, or reconcile, at the end of the year — make sure nobody is harmed by agreeing to a partial budget.”
Another factor in school system budgets across the state is Gov. Brian Kemp’s call for all state agencies, including school systems, to plan for a 14% budget cut.
Byars said that could mean between a decrease of $5 million to $6 million in state funding, but he called the estimate “fluid.”
“It changes day to day, if not hourly,” Byars said, adding that the system plans to maximize the effectiveness of whatever federal funds it gets.
He said there are proposed plans to deal with the expected shortfall. One is to adjust the school calendar to have two pre-planning days and one post-planning day as furlough days for faculty and staff. Another is to eliminate some positions.
The unemployment rate in Floyd County soared to an all-time high of 13.5% in April, according to the new data from the Georgia Department of Labor.
The economic impact of COVID-19 in April showed Floyd County-based employers listing some 40,000 workers on their payrolls, down 2,100 from this March.
The breakdown shows a loss of 1,700 jobs in the service industry sector along with a decline of 400 in retail trade and 300 in manufacturing.
When considering Floyd residents who lost jobs in April, the numbers go even higher.
The Department of Labor reported that 38,427 Rome and Floyd County residents were employed, either in or outside the county. That number was down by 4,030 from March and down by 3,755 when compared to April 2019.
Missy Kendrick, president of the Rome-Floyd County Development Authority, said she was not completely surprised by the April jobless rate increase.
“The last time we talked, we spoke about the possibility of it going up pretty sharply,” Kendrick said.
She said she is very confident the unemployment rate will fall but would not speculate how far or how fast.
“Looking at it from an optimistic side of things, having a workforce that is looking for jobs is a bonus when it comes to recruitment,” Kendrick said.
The low unemployment rate that Rome and most of Northwest Georgia have enjoyed for the last year created its own unique challenge as it relates to being able to provide a workforce for new industry.
“Although we are seeing all-time high unemployment rates across a majority of the state, we are continuing to work with employers on effective strategies to get Georgians back to work in both a safe and economically efficient way,” said Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler in a press release.
Kendrick said one of the unfortunate aspects of the situation right now is that there is no way of knowing how many of the job cuts are permanent versus temporary.
“We just don’t have any way of knowing that until this passes,” Kendrick said.
Another issue about how fast that recovery comes involves supplements to unemployment payments from COVID-19 assistance. There have been reports of people declining to return to work because their combined benefits brought home as much as or more than they earned while working.
Overall, the 15-county Northwest Georgia region checked in with a 13.3% jobless rate in April, up from 4.3% in March.
Whitfield County led the region with a 20.6% unemployment rate in April. Chattooga County came in at 17.1%, Bartow at 14.8%, Gordon at 12.7%, Polk at 11.9% and Walker County at 10.9%.