The Geary County Commission’s regular Monday meeting was shot through with concerns about COVID-19, otherwise known as coronavirus.
The county issued a declaration of a state of local public health emergency in Geary County for the virus. The county will remain in this state of emergency for the next 60 days unless the county decides to terminate it before that time.
Junction City Fire Chief Terry Johnson spoke with county commissioners at the meeting, where he talked about efforts to minimize any potential coronavirus outbreak that could take place locally.
According to Johnson, he and his agency were not involved in the initial planning meetings concerning coronavirus, something he said he was not happy about. Johnson told commissioners the Junction City Fire Department had not been informed about a new code being used by dispatchers to refer to possible cases of coronavirus. One such code went out over the scanner this weekend, he said, and while the patient turned out to be negative for COVID-19, if they had been positive for the virus, an ambulance would have been contaminated and those who responded would have been quarantined.
A large part of his objection to this was that his team went in without knowing what they were potentially getting into.
The situation is being resolved this week, starting with a meeting this morning.
“At this time, the biggest problem that we have is agencies that are going to be involved that have not been involved,” Johnson said. “They’re slowly coming together.”
It’s, he said, atypical in a disaster to have slip ups in the response.
“With these type of events, things get missed,” Johnson said. “My issue that I have for our agency is that we are the first responders for everything medical in the county, and we have not been contacted or informed of what is going on other than what we’re getting from websites, emails and media. I don’t know why. I can’t answer that question for you. It’s imperative that the emergency services be a part of this. But not being included not being asked questions on how we operate or even being checked on to see if we’re ready to operate — it’s disturbing.”
He said he believed the problem will be sorted out soon, however.
Johnson expressed worry to county commissioners that the county was not prepared for an outbreak of coronavirus, despite efforts.
“Yes, we are stretched thin, but we are getting prepared,” Johnson said in the aftermath of the meeting. “These things take a lot of time to coordinate.”
Though the disease spreads quickly, information sometimes does not.
“The data still being qualified and still being processed,” he said, by higher-ups. “So we’re getting the data as it comes down. It’s the dissemination of the data that is always — in any event — is always the issue. The bigger part of it is, when decisions are being made, and the agencies that are affected have little notice. It is hard to change things when you don’t have the notice or the logistics to do it with and we need to know those things — when are we going to get it or how are we going to get it or what are we planning to do — without being part of that conversation. Being told ‘that’s what you’re going to do’ doesn’t go very far, especially with something as serious as this.”
Local first responders may not have access to some of the medical equipment the county needs immediately. This is in part, Johnson said, because it’s standard practices for the Centers for Disease Control has bought up a large amount of relevant medical equipment.
According to Johnson, the equipment will be stored in one of the CDC’s 10 warehouses across the country.
“In a natural disaster, that’s what happens,” he said. “That’s the automatic process that happens in government. The problem is, on the ground here, we can’t get it. And that’s the problem.”
Geary County has started the process of applying for some of this equipment.
Johnson said the CDC — and everyone else — is still grappling with COVID-19 and trying to get a grasp on the disease as it spreads across the country — to understand what’s taking place.
“This is happening faster than our systems are capable of understanding,” he said. “The CDC — they are the agency that does the testing of the virus. They have special labs all over the world. They do that special testing to find out what we can do — can we have a vaccine for this — but all those things take an extraordinary amount of time. This COVID-19 virus is moving faster than what we can track. So if we can’t track it, we don’t know where it’s headed. We don’t know how to slow down the exposure.”
This, Johnson said, is why it’s imperative for people to stay home as much as possible and otherwise take steps to limit the spread of the virus.
“if we can slow it down, we can get a grip on it, we can find out what we need to do and we can defeat it,” Johnson said. “It’s just going to take time. And unfortunately, in today’s world, time is one of the things we have a tendency not to think about. We don’t want to wait. So that’s kind of where it’s at with the CDC.”
As members of the general public, Johnson said he would like to see people looking out for others.
“Look out for the older generation and the younger generation — make sure they’re healthy,” he said. “Stay clean. Wash your hands. If you’re feeling (an) illness coming on of any kind, go see a doctor Immediately. Don’t wait.”
People who suspect they have COVID-19 have been asked to phone or email their primary care providers before coming in to the hospital.
Geary Community Hospital has about 20 COVID-19 tests on hand at this time and has put in an order for about 200, Johnson told the commissioners.
“Try not to panic,” Johnson said. “ We have people buying in bulk out of the stores. Well, the elderly and the senior citizens in our community that need those groceries, that need those things can’t get them because people are buying all of it up. Think about your neighbor, think about our senior citizens, think about our senior people in our community, think about those who don’t have access. Reach out and do what you can to help them. At the same time, just be aware — take care of yourself.”
Chair Keith Ascher agreed the county was not fully prepared for an emergency of this magnitude.
“There’s been a lack of communication that probably should have been taking place sooner,” he said. “I think that’s what (Johnson) was trying to convey and it sounds like he’s been trying to correct that.”
Ascher asked people to follow the guidelines laid out by state and government officials in regards to keeping themselves safe, from social distancing to hygiene.
“For now, that sounds like our best defense,” he said.
In addition to hearing from Johnson, the county also signed off on an application for no-fund warrants in the hopes of rescuing GCH from its debts. No-fund warrants can be used by a county government to provide emergency funding for situations such as the one that has erupted at GCH. If the county receives what it has requested, the hospital will receive emergency funding which it will later pay off with its existing millage.
Interim CEO Don Smithburg joined the county in signing off on the request.
“This is really critical for us to be able to pay down the accounts payable,” he said.
The county doesn’t have the no-fund warrants yet or know for certain it will receive them. According to Smithburg, the whole affair is about a 90-day process and they’ll know for sure if the county has received what it requested after that point.
He said he appreciated the commission’s help in going after the warrants and that he believes the hospital will receive what it has requested.
“We’re pretty confident,” Smithburg said. “I don’t see any obstacles.”
In light of the CORVID-19 pandemic, Ascher said the hospital had great value to everyone in the community.
“Just think if we didn’t have a local hospital at this challenging time we’re facing with CORVID-19,” he said in a written statement after the meeting. “It is paramount that we do everything we can to keep our hospital. I commend the GCH board of trustees and the interim administration for their dedication to work with the Board of County Commissioners to find a workable way forward. Hopefully this will lead to long term sustainability, coupled with other initiatives. Also, thank you to our staff at the hospital for your patience through this process.”
Ascher believes the no-fund warrants will save the hospital without the need for raising taxes, calling it a “win-win” situation.
“It’s going to save the hospital I think at this point,” he said.