The recent jump in Fulton County residents testing positive for COVID-19 has raised concerns for county leaders and health officials as the Fulton government continues its reopening plan in response to the pandemic.
“You can’t turn on the TV or radio and not know these cases have been on a dramatic rise,” said consultant Doug Schuster of Emergency Management Services International (EMSI), an emergency management firm working with the county. “(For months) we have been on a steady (downward) trend, but in the last three or four weeks the cases have grown.”
Schuster added that in Fulton County’s hospitals, the rate of COVID-19 positive cases was “approximately 4.5% for over a month, but there’s been a steady increase. On July 6 the hospitals had 24.22% positives.”
Also, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s website, the seven-day average for individuals testing positive for the virus in Fulton has increased from 114.9 June 18 to 191.6 June 24, the last day the state had final and not preliminary data on COVID-19 cases.
At the Fulton Board of Commissioners’ July 8 meeting at Assembly Hall in downtown Atlanta, Schuster was one of several county leaders and contractors to speak about the rise in virus cases. At the previous meeting June 17, Schuster cited a recent decrease in county cases, from a 16% hospitalization rate early in the pandemic to 8.2% that day.
While some county leaders touted Fulton’s quick response to the pandemic and its ability to test more residents than any other county in Georgia, others said taking a step back in how Fulton deals with the outbreak may be the best bet.
Dr. Lynn Paxton, Fulton’s district health director, said the surge in cases is not just a county issue but a nationwide one. With an increase in the number of Fulton residents getting tested, the wait times on receiving results has risen from one to three days to six to eight, she said, angering and frustrating residents, including herself.
Paxton also said her department has “been slammed” by the increases in both tests and positive cases.
“It has stressed public health to the max with our call center and testing sites,” she said. “… (At the call center) up until a couple of weeks ago, we were getting up to 600 calls a day, which we could handle. But over the past month we’re getting up to 1,500 calls a day. All the laboratories are reporting they are getting overwhelmed. That has decreased the turnaround time (on test results).”
Paxton said the county’s testing sites have jumped from 200 tests a day to 600, and that the county has doubled the number of call center lines it has to 20 and has hired more staff to handle those lines. She added Fulton is about to start using a web-based scheduling app called MS Dynamics, which allows clients to go online to schedule their own tests without having to use the call center.
“Once they do that, they’re sent a QR code to take to the testing site,” she said in a June interview. “It gets scanned, they go home, and once the test is ready, the result is pushed to them through this app.”
At the meeting, which took place on the day Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an executive order requiring all residents wear masks, Paxton said she wants to see everyone wearing masks to help limit the virus’ spread.
“I don’t have a problem with 100 people in a group setting as long as they’re wearing masks and social distancing, but I have a problem with 10 people in a bar sitting or standing close together and not wearing masks,” Paxton said. “It’s not so much the number of people but the social distancing and the need to wear mass.”
In three previous meetings District 6 Commissioner Joe Carn has unsuccessfully lobbied the board to approve at least $1 million of the county’s $104 million in CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act funding to give hundreds of thousands of residents masks and other personal protective equipment. He said the group is regretting that decision and others it’s made in not providing more aid.
“We are in trouble,” Carn said. “There are a lot of recommendations from the commission that fell on deaf ears.”
He added his own district office has bought and distributed more than 22,000 masks to its residents. Paxton said she has 250,000 masks the county got from the federal government and would give his district its fair share.
Anna Roach, Fulton’s COO, said the county is starting to rethink its reopening plans based on the recent spike in residents contracting the virus. The reopening plan’s fourth phase began July 1, and the fifth and final one starts July 15.
She said Fulton will proceed with its reopening strategy on with the tax, courts, elections, public health, public works and public safety departments, plus continuing curbside pickup for libraries.
But it’s considering changing course by having some employees who returned to their offices after teleworking this spring go back to working from home. The county is also looking to close senior centers that were previously opened to staff only and return to telemedicine delivery for the board of health’s services.
Roach said she would bring the recommendations to the board for a vote at its Aug. 19 recess meeting. District 4 Commissioner Natalie Hall, citing the fact that Bottoms recently tested positive for COVID-19, wondered why the board, which hosted its first in-person meeting June 17 after three months of virtual meetings, wondered if they should be there.
“When I walked into Assembly Hall (today), I said, ‘Why are we here?’ … Why didn’t we go back to doing Zoom meetings?’” she said.