Photo by Jesse Walker
By Tia Lynn Ivey
The establishment of a Coronavirus quarantine camp at Hard Labor Creek State Park in Rutledge this week, which currently has one infected patient on the grounds, has local leaders scrambling to educate the public while pressing state leaders for answers.
At an open meeting on Wednesday morning at the Morgan County Jail, local leaders vented frustrations over Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to set up a coronavirus isolation camp at Hard Labor Creek without prior notification.
“We found out along with everyone else,” said County Manager Adam Mestres. Other county and city officials reported finding out via Facebook when the State’s press release began to circulate on social media. The isolation camp, which is designed to hold up to 14 patients infected with COVID-19, has prompted backlash from Rutledge citizens, as well as citizens across Morgan County, fearing incoming infected patients held at the new facilities could lead to an outbreak in Morgan County. However, state officials have promised that the quarantined area–which includes seven emergency medical trailers–will be a “completely enclosed area” for infected patients and the staff caring for them.
According to State Representative Dave Belton, any patients taken to the Hard Labor Creek isolation camp will be non-emergency cases, meaning infected patients who do not need hospitalization, but who need to be kept isolated from at home family members who are at high risk, such as young children, the elderly, or others with chronic illnesses and compromised immune systems.
“These will be people who are not in critical condition,” said Belton.
Despite the chaotic public relations roll out of the Hard Labor Creek isolation site, local officials are urging the public to remain calm and do not believe the quarantined area poses any danger to the local public.
“We are here to partner with the state in any way we can. It’s a state operation but it is in our county, said County Manager Adam Mestres. “There is no need for mass panic or hysteria. It’s just a proper precaution and we are well protected from what’s going on out there,” said Mestres.
“The sky is not falling,” said Emergency Manager Gwen Ruark. “We can get through this and things will move on and we can be fine.”
Local Leaders from the county, city, law enforcement and medical agencies discussed the matter with State Representative Dave Belton on Wednesday, urging him to ensure prompt, transparent, and accurate information from the state about the future happenings at the isolation camp in Hard Labor Creek. Local leaders also noted they are in the “hot seat” with the public despite not having anything to do with the decision to set up the Coronavirus isolation camp at Hard Labor Creek.
According to Belton, even he, and Morgan County’s other representative State Senator Burt Jones, were left out of the loop until the Governor’s office released the decision to the broader public.
“This is a state issue at this point, the governor has made this decision,” said Belton. “I was not informed about it, myself nor Senator Jones knew about it until they released the information,” explained Belton, who assured the audience that he’s been in “constant contact” with the Governor ever since. “This is a state issue and the local officials didn’t have anything to do with it. I am sorry that this happened,” said Belton. “Again, I was told when you were told. But if you have a problem, come to me and I will fix it.”
Gwen Ruark stressed that the botched communication effort on the part of the state gave rise to the public backlash.
“Everyone in this room was shocked when we found out,” said Ruark. “If we were shocked, imagine how the public felt?”
Ruark credited Mestres and Sheriff Markley for proactively tracking down information once news of the isolation camp came to light Monday afternoon.
“If they weren’t getting on the phone themselves trying to get answers, the citizens of this county wouldn’t know anything,” said Ruark. “We have all pulled together and it makes me proud to be part of the public safety community in Morgan County. Without all of us coming together and standing together to say, ‘We dont mind Morgan County being used, but we do mind not being informed about it.’ We have all stood up and I thank each and every one of you for the role you have played in this county for the time and hours you have spent on this.”
Leah Ainslie, the County Nurse Manager for the Morgan County Health Department echoed Ruark’s remarks. “Our district officials had no prior knowledge either and had extreme difficulty in getting information from the state,” said Ainslie. “If it wasn’t not for Adam, we would not have that information either. So we are desperately trying to get that information from our district officials who are trying to get it from our state officials. Once they learned that Morgan County does communicate they had to tell us what they knew.”
Morgan Medical Center representatives informed leaders that they have been preparing for any coronavirus cases that could crop up locally by establishing testing procedures and designating isolation rooms to prevent further spread of the disease.
Leah Ainslie briefed the local leaders on the how COVID-19 is spread, through “respiratory droplets” within a six-foot radius of release into the air. The virus can also live on surfaces. She urged the public to wash their hands, avoid touching their faces, disinfect surface areas, cover coughs and sneezes with their elbows and practice a bit of “social distancing” during this high-alert contagious period.
Mestres noted many of the recommended practices to avoid COVID-19 infection are practices most people do daily.
“These are just common sense precautionary approaches,” said Mestres.
Mestres and the other local officials promised to keep the public updated on the isolation camp and any other developments caused by the spread of the Coronavirus.
Attendance at Wednesday’s meeting included County Commissioner Chairman Philipp von Hanstein, County Commissioner Andy Ainslie, County Manager Adam Mestres, Morgan County Emergency Management Director Gwen Ruark, Morgan County Fire Chief Jeff Stone, Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley, Madison Chief of Police Bill Ashburn, Morgan Medical Center CEO Ralph Castillo, National EMS Director Huey Atkins, and Morgan County Health Department Nurse Manager Leah Ainslie.