Update: The first two cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Georgia late March 2, with two people in Fulton County being diagnosed with the disease.
Hall County Schools is developing a plan in case the new coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads to the district.
Based on a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the school system has assembled a team to prepare for a potential pandemic.
Mamie Coker, Hall’s health services coordinator, will lead the 17-person team composed of representatives from emergency management, health services, student services, technology, maintenance, communications, and teaching and learning departments.
“With COVID-19, it’s a novel coronavirus and there are no vaccines,” Coker said. “I think that the fear of the unknown is what concerns parents the most.”
Based on what Coker has heard from the CDC and Georgia Department of Public Health, she said the new coronavirus is mainly affecting people 50 or older with preexisting health conditions.
The CDC has information on symptoms of coronavirus, how it spreads and how it can be prevented.
COVID-19 is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that’s a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses, both of which have caused outbreaks in the past.
Coker said the district felt compelled to come up with a COVID-19 plan after seeing the media buzz about the outbreak and receiving phone calls from parents asking about the system’s protocols.
The CDC has provided a set of guidelines for public schools to follow when faced with the novel coronavirus. The federal agency’s protocols range in severity from zero to seven.
Hall, Gainesville City Schools and the state of Georgia are at level zero, which addresses prevention and preparations.
Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams said the city district has posted information on its website about COVID-19 from the Georgia Department of Public Health.
The agency’s press release states the overall risk of the novel coronavirus to the general public is low in Georgia. The department already has a detailed pandemic flu plan developed in the past with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Georgia Department of Education and other state agencies. The plan will be adapted for a COVID-19 outbreak in the state.
“We will continue monitoring the situation as it develops, including review of our pandemic flu plan to align with COVID-19,” Williams said.
The state also on Friday announced a task force to assess the state's preparations for addressing any potential coronavirus cases.
Treating it like the flu
It’s not Coker’s first time coming up with a thorough virus preparedness plan. In 2009, she led the Hall district’s team in devising a strategy to combat a flu, H1N1, pandemic that threatened the county.
“Here we are again predicting a possible pandemic,” Coker said. “Now we have more information from the Georgia Department of Education and Public Health Department for a specific plan for public schools. We want to be proactive and show we are prepared.”
Coker said the CDC recommends treating the new coronavirus like the flu. Because of the district’s experience with the flu in 2009, she said Hall already has a solid foundation to build upon as more information comes out about COVID-19.
Coker has been pushing out flu prevention strategies to students, parents and staff, including frequent and proper hand washing, coughing into the sleeve instead of hand and staying home with flu-like symptoms.
If students have a fever of 100.3 degrees or higher, Coker said they need to stay fever free for 24 hours without fever-reducing medicines before returning to school.
Another of the district’s mitigation protocols involves more vigilantly cleaning commonly touched areas. Teachers now have their own supply of cleaning products commonly used by custodial staff.
Gretchen Thompson, school nurse at Riverbend Elementary, said since it’s flu season, she’s already constantly encouraging handwashing. If a student experiences flu-like symptoms, Thompson said she puts them in an isolated room until a parent or guardian picks them up from school.
Thompson recently sent out Spanish and English guides to all of the school’s parents about identifying whether or not a child should stay home.
“It helps parents understand if a child has a chronic cough or nasal drainage to stay home,” Thompson said. “It goes through everything in excess. Any of this can be applicable.”
Coker said Hall parents have asked her, “When are we closing the schools?”
This decision would be made by Hall’s Board of Education based on information and guidance from District 2 Public Health Department.
If the novel coronavirus gets to a point where the schools need to close, Coker said there are measures to allow students to learn virtually from home.
The flu is more prevalent than COVID-19, and Coker said its number of average deaths far exceeds the new coronavirus. Since the outbreak in late 2019, 2,869 people worldwide have died from COVID-19, according to the Associated Press. The vast majority of those numbers are from mainland China.
The CDC estimates that from Oct. 1, 2019-Feb. 22, 2020, there have been more than 18,000 flu deaths in the U.S. and as many as 46,000.
“This flu season there were 59 flu-related deaths in Georgia,” Coker said. “Keep it in perspective, the flu kills more.”
Coker encourages parents and community members to stick to trusted sources like the CDC, medical providers and the Georgia Public Health Department, when collecting data about COVID-19.
“Misinformation seems to be spreading faster than the virus, and fear,” Coker said. “That can cause a lot of anxiety for parents, and we understand their concerns.”
Next week, Coker and her team from the school system will meet with Dr. Pamela Logan, the District 2 Public Health Department’s director, to make sure they’re on the same page with pandemic preparedness plans.
Coker said the school district will update parents on the situation as soon as they receive more information from the CDC, Georgia Department of Education and the Georgia Department of Public Health.
“We have to wait on confirmed cases,” Coker said. “We can’t act on hearsay. We trust that as soon as they learn more information, they will pass it on to us.”
For now, if parents have concerns about COVID-19, Coker advises them to talk to their health care provider or school nurse.
For more information about COVID-19, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus.