Wellstar Kennestone Hospital has more COVID-19 patients than any other hospital in metro Atlanta, according to one public health official.

Dr. Janet Memark, director of Cobb-Douglas Public Health, shared the information during a virtual event Thursday night organized by south Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid.

The event was meant to bring together public health officials and members of the Cobb Board of Education to discuss the coronavirus pandemic as it relates to the reopening of schools. Board members Jaha Howard, Charisse Davis and Chairman Brad Wheeler attended the meeting. They were joined by presumed incoming board member Tre Hutchins, Cobb-Douglas Public Health Deputy Director Lisa Crossman and County Emergency Management Agency Director Cassie Mazloom.

Memark’s comment came in response to a question from Howard, who pointed out that hospitals in Cobb are running out of bed space as they resume elective procedures while dealing with an uptick in patients suffering from COVID-19.

What would happen, Howard asked, if the district were to open its buildings to its 100,000-plus students and thousands of employees?

“Hospital capacity is stretched,” she said. “Do you want to add on another 100 COVID cases? Well that’s not my ultimate decision. But … I share that information that we have, and it’s concerning how many patients we have that are in there and how (few) beds we have.”

WHEN WILL IT BE SAFE?At the beginning of the meeting, Memark said Cobb is experiencing high rates of transmission, with a slight decline in recent days.

“Honestly, we don’t know exactly what is causing these huge spikes, but it does seem to be around the holidays and when everything opened up a lot more,” she said.

This spring, Gov. Brian Kemp issued emergency orders closing businesses and ordering people to stay home, but allowed those orders to expire at the end of April. The number of people hospitalized for the virus reached a low point in early June but has since increased fourfold.

Members of the public were able to submit questions when registering for the event. Some wanted to know at what level of community spread it would be considered safe to reopen schools in-person.

Memark said one criteria would be for cases to be trending down, rather than up. Another would show a low percentage of tests coming back positive. And, finally, it would depend on the schools — can they keep students at least 6 feet apart? Can they get all of them to wear masks?

PRIVATE SCHOOLS

Some parents wanted to know why they have heard of private schools reopening in-person while the 120,000 students in Cobb County School District and Marietta City Schools will have to begin the 2020-21 school year remotely.

Although every school receives the same information, Memark said, the ability of some schools to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance regarding social distancing, masks and the like varies dramatically.

“It was fairly easy for some schools,” Memark said, adding that larger schools will have to be “much more creative” when creating a safe learning environment during the pandemic.

Howard said the pandemic has put a spotlight on the district’s flaws.

“We could be social distancing right now” but for state-imposed budget cuts and certain county tax exemptions, Howard said.

“That’s real money over time.” he continued. “Those are real school buildings that didn’t get built. Those are real classrooms that aren’t there. Those are real teachers that aren’t employed. That’s why we can’t just lower class sizes. … It breaks my heart that we have to do virtual, but it really feels like we have to.”

CHILDREN AND CORONAVIRUSSome studies have suggested children are less likely to fall seriously ill or catch and pass the virus than adults. Some parents who submitted questions for Thursday’s event wanted to know more about the science regarding children and the coronavirus.

In a recent interview with the Marietta Daily Journal, Wellstar infectious disease specialist Danny Branstetter said data regarding the degree to which children spread the virus was inconclusive.

“That data also says that it is possible — not conclusive — possible that they don’t shed it as much,” he said. But again, this is stuff that we’re still learning and trying to figure out. So this may be a subject we talk about in a week, or even a month from now and the data is completely telling us a different story.”

Thursday night, Memark acknowledged children rarely fall seriously ill from the virus.

“But they are able spread it, and we do see studies that that is true,” she said. “We have a lot of cases in day cares. I mean, lots and lots of day care cases. And we have seen deaths of caregivers that have worked in day cares.

“The children have parents and teachers and grandparents, and I cannot tell you how many times that I have seen a grandparent that has been sheltering and has seen their children or grandchildren and they have perished because of it,” she continued.

At another point in the discussion, Memark said closing the schools ahead of their spring breaks “was probably one of the most effective things that was done that helped to bring down the transmission of the virus at that time.

“Thank God that we did that,” she continued, “because we really saw just an incredible uptick of cases that were school-involved after that. And thank God nobody was in the school.”

POLITICS AND INFORMATIONHoward said it can be hard to know which sources of information to trust, and asked Memark how people should navigate the deluge of information regarding the virus.

“That’s probably the toughest question of the evening, I think,” Memark said.

Although she didn’t point to specific sources of information to which people should turn, Memark stressed finding multiple sources of information and being wary of their biases while doing it.

“There’s a lot of politicizing right now,” she said, “and it’s so unfortunate that that’s happening right now because this is something that we all need to stick together to get through this.”

TECHNOLOGYToward the end of the discussion, board members detailed efforts to make sure students have access to the district’s online learning platform.

Charisse Davis said the district will be repurposing its laptops for home use and using buses as mobile internet providers for families that lack internet access.

The district’s sharp pivot to online learning in March was bumpy, Howard acknowledged.

“It was kind of survival in the spring,” Howard said. “You’re going to have a much better experience coming up in the fall.”

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