At a special meeting Tuesday afternoon intended to share thoughts on city policy related to the coronavirus, Apalachicola city commissioners said they would like to see a joint committee created, in conjunction with the county, to address how best to reopen the county.
"I do understand the need for us to reopen but I also understand the need to keep the vulnerable and to keep our citizens protected," said Commissioner Brenda Ash, in opening the discussion at the online meeting.
She proposed an ad hoc task force of city and county representatives, including representatives from the business community and the chamber of commerce, as well as health care, "to form a plan so we can start working towards reopening when the right time comes.
"We need to defer to the health care professionals for guidance," she said.
The idea drew support from her fellow commissioners as well as Mayor Kevin Begos, who had called the meeting. With the approval of City Attorney Kristy Banks, the meeting was limited to discussion only, with no action taken. The public was encouraged to email their comments and ideas to the mayor and commissioners, so that they could be considered ahead of any meetings where action would be openly discussed and possibly taken.
While she was in support of the task force, Commissioner Adriane Elliott took the sternest stance towards reopening the city.
"We are having to wait for Gov. DeSantis to make his final statement with whatever he thinks," she said. "We have been encouraged to go above that (policy) if we see fit.
""If we find that (Gov. DeSantis) has gone ‘full Governor Kemp," she said, referring to the Georgia governor’s decision to open up state businesses beginning Friday, "I think we need to coordinate with the county and maintain a moratorium on vacation short term rentals.
Elliott noted that the county has seen only two cases, and that both were travel-related, with one resident couple returning from a cruise ship, and the other a non-resident woman from New York who had traveled down here. Neither have needed hospitalization.
"We were able to contain that (COVID 19) and we’ve been able to establish the main threat is people traveling and potentially bringing the virus here," she said.
Elliott also said that even as a bartender, she would take a cautious approach to reopening bars, given that they are intended to be a site for large social gatherings.
Commissioner Despina George said that she was in support of forming the committee. "There’s no point about talking about specifics until we know what direction the governor is going to go," she said,
Commission Anita Grove said the city would likely need a phased-in approach, and said rapid testing will be a factor in the future.
"We’re going to have people coming in from all over and we need to test and get quick results," said said, stressing the need to have health care expertise on the committee.
"My question is, how can we maintain capacity as the population changes with all those businesses opening up?" asked Grove. "How can we develop a plan that layers in more testing?"
In his opening remarks, Begos said he has been in talks with local people familiar with the industry, and with State Rep. Jason Shoaf regarding tests, "to see whether we have the potential to do some sort of widespread testing in Apalachicola.
"It’s going to take a while to see what’s possible, and the cost and timeline," he said. "We need to focus on what we control. Perhaps we can control things like making face masks and making them available to the public."
Both Sarah Hinds, director of the county health department, and David Walker, interim CEO of Weems Memorial Hospital, addressed the meeting.
"You really start to appreciate how fortunate we have been," Hinds said. "We are keeping our at-risk population safe. We have to take into consideration and certainly recognize the preventative measures set by the state. We salute uou for all the work you’re doing to protect our residents."
"It’s a new virus so we’re all in this new learning curve together," she said.
She said the state is seeing an average of 1,000 cases per day, as it takes part in an "active surveillance mode."
Hinds said the next phase will be passive surveillance, with more people, including those not exhibiting symptoms, tested for antibodies to the virus.
"The epidemiologists will use passive surveillance data when the dust settles," she said. "We need to be looking at more realistic rate data; we’re just not there yet. We’ve been focusing on the at-risk population, and the importance of social distancing measures."
Health care providers are able to test beyond CDC criteria but the health department is focused on priority testing, to ensure that testing capabilities are available.
"The health care providers need to have resources and are dependent on commercial labs, not our state labs, which means the wait time may be longer," she said.
Walker said a hospital in Bonifay did a three-day pilot project where they tested everybody, regardless of CDC criteria, and they discovered a lot about the comparative turnaround times between state and private labs.
He said testing through Weems and the health department can be turned around in one to two days, while private labs can be as long as five to seven days.
"When you do community-wide testing you want results back as soon as possible," Walker said. "In rural America we do need to have more testing. I don’t want to be left out and I also want to make sure we have the capacity to do that."