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Fire investigators heading back to International Paper mill Monday

Investigators will be back on the scene Monday to determine the origin of an early morning fire that caused extensive damage to a large building at the International Paper mill in Coosa.

“It was as bad a fire as I’ve ever seen out there,” said Rome-Floyd County Fire Chief Troy Brock on Sunday.

Battalion Chief Clay Walker, who was with the first responding units, said the location of the fire made it difficult to get to. Once firefighters were close to point of origin, they had to back out and regroup because a portion of the roof and wall had collapsed.

The fire was so hot that it expanded the roof trusses, according to Division Chief Clete Bonney, and that helped push out a side wall of the building.

“It caused extensive damage to the production lines,” Bonney said.

Fire Marshal Mary Catherine Chewning said one mill employee was taken to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation but their condition did not appear to be serious.

“We are grateful all of our team members and contractors are safe with no serious injuries reported,” said mill spokesperson Jenna Guzman in a Sunday statement.

Walker said the mill sprinkler system helped contain the fire — but at least five fire units were on the scene until almost 4 a.m. Sunday, making sure the blaze was out and there were no hot spots.

Debris was still falling from the roof at 3:30 a.m. as the building appeared to be settling at the end of the fire, Bonney added.

Chewning said the nature of the site, coupled with the collapse and the rain on Sunday made it very difficult to get in to investigate. She said International Paper would be flying in personnel from corporate headquarters to assist with the investigation.

The point of origin appeared to be in the area of the two large paper machines inside the building, Chewning said, but she could not pinpoint a specific location Sunday.

Guzman said that it was entirely too early to know what kind of impact the fire will have on production at the mill, which makes linerboard used in cardboard boxes.

The mill has has been the focus of major technological upgrades and close to $300 million in capital investment by International Paper over the last seven years.

Former hospital chaplain urges all adults to have an advance directive on health care

Life-threatening trauma or critical illness can affect lives in the blink of an eye.

This is why it’s important for everyone who is at least 18 years old to consider having an advance directive form on file — either at home or with a health care provider — according to former Floyd Medical Center Chaplain Gary Batchelor.

“End of life decisions are very complicated and almost always tragic,” said Batchelor, a chaplain for 39 years before retiring five years ago. “There is no single response that is always appropriate. A medical advance directive for health care is an important tool to help make decisions in critical situations.”

Batchelor had been asked by a member of the Exchange Club of Rome to speak on the topic, but the group’s weekly meeting was canceled because of COVID-19 precautions.

Batchelor said Friday by phone that he didn’t know if the new coronavirus was motivating more people to fill out an advance directive. But he said because the disease affects the respiratory system and can lead to situations involving hospital ventilators, it may be more critical than ever.

As a necessary medical treatment, ventilators (breathing machines) are life-savers, he said. They can help many patients recover from critical illness.

“But some of the most difficult decisions made by loved ones on behalf of a patient involve ventilators that are so high-tech,” he said. “People often fear a ventilator will unnecessarily prolong futile suffering. Good communication with the health care team is crucial and an advance directive can help with clear communication.”

It is estimated by the American Bar Association that only about one-third of all adults in the U.S. have an advance directive — despite a federal requirement that all hospitals ask patients if they have such a form and to provide information on completing one if they need it.

No one is required by law to have such a directive on file.

Describing himself as “a healthy 71-year-old” who has made his own health care wishes known to loved ones for quite some time now, Batchelor said an advance directive is usually more specific than a living will when it comes to various medical situations a person and their loved ones might be faced with.

Georgia’s Advance Directive for Health Care, revised by the General Assembly four years ago, has four parts: Health Care Agent, Treatment Preferences, Guardianship, and Effectiveness and Signatures.

Batchelor said communicating medical wishes to loved ones and making sure they know where an advance directive is being kept is one of the most important aspects of being prepared for the unexpected.

But it’s never an easy topic.

“Not many people like to talk about it,” he said. “There’s still a tremendous amount of education needed out there for folks when it comes to an advance directive and how important it is for everyone to take care of this while they can still think clearly.”

FMC has downloadable blanks for Georgia and Alabama residents posted on its polkhospital.org patient information pages.

Bailey Patterson, a second-grader at Glenwood Primary School

Floyd County school board sets virtual meeting

While Monday’s Floyd County Board of Education meeting is set to be fairly short, there’s a lot to unpack in light of the many changes that have occurred due to the coronavirus. According to the meeting agenda, the board will discuss updates, including a COVID-19 update.

The state of emergency declared by Gov. Brian Kemp also has the board set to conduct a virtual meeting in line with the social-distancing directive.

Following recommendations from Kemp, FCS closed all schools to students and all personnel and plan to remain closed until March 25. According to Lenora McEntire Doss, the county schools’ spokesperson, students are encouraged to take advantage of any online learning they can. However, they are not mandatory.

Superintendent Jeff Wilson expressed that he is concerned about students missing instructional class time, but believes that health is much more important.

“I’d certainly be concerned about missing instruction days. We’ll get them caught up when and if this thing is over with,” he said. “Student health is more important than student learning right now.”

The board is also discussing an update on school nutrition, which has been a hot button topic for the school system. Since the last board meeting when an alternate lunch protocol was approved, the county schools’ $32,000 lunch debt dropped by about $8,000 according to Donna Carver, head of child nutrition.

When students have $50 in lunch charges, they will now be given an alternate lunch, such as a sandwich or a vegetable plate. This only applies to middle and high school students, though. All grade levels may have to skip out on extracurricular things like prom and field trips until the lunch debt is paid off.

There are also plans to discuss Armuchee High School bids. The board is currently making decisions on who to contract with to begin a modernization at the high school. The project is set to cost $50 million total — $10 million of it having already been spent on the newly built gym at the high school.

In order to comply with the declared State of Emergency, the board will conduct its caucus and regular meeting via Google Hangout, according to a release sent out Sunday afternoon.

Instead of having everyone come to the office, proceedings will be conducted online at meet.google.com/zyu-bbua-rju. People also may join by phone. Call 786-886-2319 and enter the PIN 351859445. Caucus is at 4 p.m. followed by the board meeting at 4:30 p.m.

Herrington: Covid-19 is "different than any pandemic planning that we've done"

Dealing with serious emergencies is nothing new to the local network of professional first responders, but their disaster drills haven’t focused on long-term alerts.

COVID-19 is different.

“This is different than any of the pandemic planning that we’ve done in the past,” said Tim Herrington, director of the Rome Floyd Emergency Management Agency.

“All of the planning we’ve done in the past, there was a light at the end of the tunnel because we had antiviral drugs. But with this particular strain of coronavirus, we don’t have anything.”

The number of local patients is changing daily as some are released, others are transferred and new cases emerge.

Redmond Regional Medical Center was reporting a total of five patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, as of 5 p.m. Sunday.

Spokesperson Andrea Pitts said one was in stable condition and would be discharged to self-quarantine at home, following guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Three patients have tested negative for COVID-19 at Redmond and there are 14 patients with pending test results.

Floyd Medical Center listed one patient hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday. Six others have tested negative and six were awaiting test results. FMC is reporting its information through the Floyd County EMA office and state public health department.

Cartersville Medical Center has had five patients who tested positive for COVID-19. There were 55 patients awaiting test results on Sunday. Nearly half — 28 — did not require hospitalization and were discharged home for self-quarantine.

Herrington said there are a number of new factors at play. While researchers try to come up with a vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there are concerns that this strain of the virus may go dormant.

“There’s also a chance this thing may mutate and come back as something else and be even more virulent than what we’re seeing now,” Herrington said. “We’re just keeping our eyes on it and looking at what they’re doing in China and Italy and adjust accordingly.”

They’re also documenting each case, tracking treatments and responses, in hopes that federal reimbursement is made available at some point.

“When you get something out of the ordinary that nobody is prepared for, it kind of throws your budget out of whack,” Herrington said. “Depending on how long this continues, it could have a great affect on a lot of the cities and counties.”

Reimbursements are possible now that both the state and federal governments have formally declared emergencies related to the spread of COVID-19.

Herrington said that one of the next measures his office would take involves an effort to obtain funding for additional personal protective equipment for first responders, local nursing home staffs and others who need them.

“Our staff is holding up well,” said Dr. Sheila Bennett, executive vice president at FMC and chief of patient services. “This is an amazing team of caregivers who understand the commitment involved and have risen to the challenge from the very beginning.”

Herrington is hoping to keep the local spread contained as much as possible.

“If you are sick, stay at home,” he emphasized.

He said his staff is doing a lot of its communication with local and state healthcare and government leaders by conference call or Skype, avoiding physical meetings.

“We’re just trying to do our part,”Herrington said.