Surry County Emergency Services Coordinator John Shelton said last week the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown remarkable teamwork and solidarity among area agencies working to mitigate the effects of the virus.
He also sounded an alarm, saying both the county and the nation could be in for a long, drawn-out battle with the pandemic.
“This is something we’re dealing with for at least a year,” he said Wednesday during a virtual meeting sponsored by the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce.
Shelton said EMS and other agencies throughout the county have been “dealing” with the virus, and its implications, since the first alarms began to be sounded in March, shortly before North Carolina and other states issued stay-at-home orders for many people.
“We actually have one of the strongest emergency services planning committees in the state of North Carolina,” he told those watching via computer and listening in by phone. “We have no less than 75 agencies onboard … unified, working together.”
At various times during his address, he credited the Surry County Health and Nutrition Center, both county hospitals, mental health agencies, law enforcement, all of the county’s school systems, and other groups for staying involved with the effort, and working to remain on the same page.
“There are a lot of issues we’re dealing with right now,” he said, adding that he meets three times a week with state EMS officials to help coordinate the statewide response.
In addition to the regular conference call meetings with agencies throughout the state, Shelton said he’s been in contact with local school officials daily to help them identify sanitation issues and create cleaning and maintenance programs to help mitigate any spread of the virus if schools are allowed to reopen in the autumn.
“They’ve got some very trying times ahead of them,” he said, explaining that schools, as well as day cares, have to manage “children who want to be hugging each other and on top of each other every day as they normally would.”
Shelton said the teamwork among local agencies has had some positive results.
Chief among them is the fact that few people in the medical field have contracted the virus, despite potentially being exposed regularly.
“We have had some folks within the medical system who have become positive, but a very low amount of people,” he said, adding that no one in the EMS system has yet contracted the virus. “Which means everybody is doing the best they can with PPE (personal protective equipment), and following the standard procedures in the hospitals.”
A second positive he said is the fact that none of the area nursing or adult residential homes have reported a single case, as of his talk on Wednesday.
Those facilities have become hot spots in various parts of the nation, with the virus sickening and killing many residents and staffers once the virus begins to spread in such homes.
Administrators in many of those facilities in Surry County locked down their homes early on in the pandemic, eliminating visitors, severely limiting vendor access to the buildings, and putting their staff members through daily health checks before they can report to work.
Cases still climbing
“The county has done a great job trying to keep hold of this, however as we start to open things up again, we’re starting to see (more cases),” and those positive results, he said, are “spread across all age groups … even down to children.”
As of his talk on Wednesday, Shelton said the county had 416 positive cases, with 2 deaths. By Saturday morning, the latest for which figures were available from the Department of Health and Human Services, Surry County had 444 cases, with 2 deaths.
Shelton said one area of concern, as it has been for medical providers nationwide, is the ability to handle a large number of serious cases simultaneously.
“The number of sick people we’re seeking in our hospitals is growing quite a bit. … We’ve already looked at our surge capabilities, we have a plan in place,” Shelton said without elaborating on that plan. “The numbers are growing, the number of people in intensive care in both hospitals in Surry County. (We) are creating surge plans, looking at that daily. I check with both hospitals daily.”
An official with Northern Regional Hospital in Mount Airy confirmed that the facility is seeing more cases.
Ashly Lancaster, director of marketing, said earlier this month the facility has been hospitalizing more patients with COVID-19 and has taken steps to keep from overtaxing the intensive care unit.
She said when someone needs hospitalization for possible COVID-19 infection, they are moved to a “rule-out” unit where they remain until results return. If they are positive, then the patient is moved to a separate ward for those suffering from the virus. As of Thursday, she said 23 people have tested positive at the facility and required hospitalization, though additional COVID-19 patients who were tested elsewhere have also required hospitalization there.
She said the hospital has had as many as six in intensive care at any given time — in a unit designed to accommodate 10 patients.
“We are currently running a positive rate of 6.4%” she said. Little more than a month ago the rate of positive results among those being tested was around 3%. Nationwide the positive resting rate has been 6.4%, according to the Johns Hopkins Corona Research Center.
During his Wednesday talk, Shelton said as the county and state reopen, with cases rising, it’s more important than ever to observe some basic safety guidelines.
“Clean, clean, clean, clean, and … keep our distance from each other,” he told those listening in.
He was referring to guidelines issued by both the Surry County Health and Nutrition Center and the CDC, calling for individuals to frequently wash their hands with soap and water or by using hand sanitizer, and regular cleaning of oft-used surfaces. The distancing he referred to is the CDC recommendation that individuals stay at least 6 feet from one another.
Shelton also encouraged individuals to wear masks in public. Later that day Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order requiring face masks for people in public, which took effect on Friday.
In addition to the growth in confirmed cases in Surry County, neighboring communities are also seeing the numbers spike.
In addition to Surry County’s 444, Forsyth County had 2,871 cases with 34 deaths; Yadkin County had recorded 306 cases with 4 deaths; Wilkes County stood at 567 cases with 6 deaths, Stokes County had recorded 124 cases with 1 deaths; and Alleghany County had 31 cases with no reported deaths. Statewide, there were 60,537 cases with 1,318 deaths.
In Virginia, Carroll County cases were at 203, with 8 deaths, as of Friday; Galax stood at 244 cases with 13 deaths; Grayson County had 84 confirmed cases with 2 deaths; and Patrick County stood at 41 cases with one death. The total Virginia cases stood at 58,611 confirmed cases with 1,620 confirmed deaths.
Nationwide, as of Friday, the CDC reported 1,414,870 cases — including 40,588 new cases in the previous 24 hours — and 124,325 deaths, including 2,516 new deaths in the previous 24 hours.