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Members of Monroe County Board of Health directed Board Chair Dr. Jeremy Goodwin to write a statement of the guidelines the board endorses and encourages citizens to practice. [See statement] The board held a called meeting on July 30 and discussed the current data and how it can be proactive in helping Monroe County get out of the COVID-19 pandemic and stop being a “Substantial Spread” county. 

Board members present included Goodwin, retired pharmacist Hugh Cromer, commissioner Larry Evans, community leader Lillian Davis, school superintendent Dr. Mike Hickman, council member Chris Hewett and (by phone) Mayor Eric Wilson. Health Department director of nursing Whitney Lovett and director of environmental services Gina Smith were also present. 

The numbers from Georgia’s North Central Health District, which covers 13 counties including Monroe, for the day of the meeting showed 404 cases and 23 deaths in Monroe County, making Monroe the 4th highest in the region, behind only Bibb-Macon, Houston and Baldwin. Monroe County’s numbers of cases had jumped from 385 on Tuesday to 404 on Thursday, and the most recent death was on Tuesday.

Along with COVID testing available at the Health Department, free cloth masks are available upon request. Call the department at 478-992-5082, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and ask to pick up a mask at 106 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Forsyth. Lovett said the Health Department recommends washing masks daily. Wilson said Forsyth police officers have cloth masks to give to those who need them.

Lovett said COVID testing has increased at the Monroe County Health Department, which only tests on Wednesdays from 8 a.m.-12 noon. On July 29 the Health Department did 67 tests in the half-day. Cromer asked how long it takes to get results from the tests, and Lovett said it is now six or seven days. She said it was two days but as the 13 health departments in the district have all switched to the same testing company and are doing more tests the wait time has increased.

Lovett said Monroe County has chosen the company it feels provides the most accurate results. She said the rapid test available hasn’t been as accurate. Goodwin said he is trying to order a rapid test machine for his office but has been told it won’t be available until September. 

Cromer said that a six or seven day delay is a problem because people with the virus will keep spreading it while they wait for results and also because people may not seek the treatment they need while waiting for results. Goodwin said the testing at his office is now taking up to a week to get results, and the local clinic doing rapid testing has cut down to only 10 tests per day after doing up to 100/day at one point. He said Monticello is the closest place with the 15-minute test. Goodwin and Lovett agreed that from what they have seen and the information they have heard, positive tests for COVID are almost always accurate. However a percentage of those who test negative actually do have the virus. The reason may be that the patients test before the infection has spread enough to show up or that the specimen collected is not sufficient to show the virus. Cromer asked Wilson, who has recovered from COVID, about his experience with testing. Wilson said he first tested negative, then began having symptoms, re-tested a few days later and tested positive. Cromer said a week delay in getting test results greatly limits the effectiveness of contract tracing. 

Lovett said the North Central Health District has hired people just to call contacts as tracers. Lovett is spending a lot of her time calling people who test positive and gathering information on their contacts for the district to give to tracers. She said she calls people throughout the 13 counties of the district, and the district is about 3-4 days behind on calling once it gets positive results.

Wilson said no one ever called him, but he personally called everyone who might have been exposed to COVID through him. Hickman said when a football player tested positive, the school system gave names of those with whom he had contact at practice to the Health Department and within 2-3 days they had received calls.

“It’s harder to trace now with people not staying home,” said Lovett.

Cromer asked if the Monroe County Health Department is sufficiently staffed since when he called, he was first referred to a district COVID number and when he connected with the local health department there was only one person in the office. Lovett said the referral to the district COVID number (844-987-0099) was put at the beginning of the answering message for the Monroe County Health Department because employees who answered the phone were spending so much time giving out that number. She said since employees are assigned so many COVID-related duties, it has been delayed in scheduling clients for the regular services of the health department, like immunizations. One part-time nurse is seeing those clients once or twice a month. 

Smith said of her four-person staff in environmental health, one person is deployed with the National Guard and may not be back for a year. For the rest of this week, she would be the only person available. Cromer asked if Smith could do spot checks at restaurants to encourage compliance with employees wearing masks and other COVID-related precautions. Smith said such checks are within the scope of her authority and she will visit restaurants which are reportedly not encouraging employees to comply. 

Davis said she is concerned about churches having regular services again. Goodwin agreed that from everything he has learned, an indoor church service is a dangerous place for contracting COVID-19. He said there are a lot of guidelines to make it safer, with distancing being most important. Hickman said the school system had tried to follow all the guidelines to prevent cancelling a concert at the Fine Arts Center, even dividing the concert into two performances for 300 people each, but had decided it couldn’t be made safe enough.

Hickman said he is continuing to look at all new data to make decisions about opening school, including data about COVID in children ages 10 and under compared to COVID in older students and adults. Both Goodwin and Lovett agreed that data seems to show a difference in how the virus is spread and its symptoms in children younger than 10.