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Sunday Focus: Local leaders discuss potential impact of coronavirus in area

NATCHEZ — Unless you’ve been vacationing in the wilderness for the past few months you have no doubt heard about the latest strain of the coronavirus, COVID-19.

Daily updates on the virus are issued regularly on virtually every media outlet with the latest number of cases, predictions on the spread of the disease and what you should do to protect yourself.

Community action

Leaders in Natchez and Adams County convened a task force last week to put a plan in place to help minimize and contain any potential contamination in the Miss-Lou.

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell announced the formation of the local Coronavirus

(COVID-19) Preparedness Task Force and at a City Hall meeting Wednesday that he coordinated with representatives of the Mississippi Department of Health and local public health, welfare and safety organizations.

Grennell said his intent is to be pro-active now and not reactive later, in the event of a COVID-19 incident in Natchez.

“This is not a call to panic, but a call to prepare,” Grennell said in a press statement. “Coronavirus has been around a long time, but as is the case with influenza, new strains of coronavirus pop up periodically. COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus strain.”

Grennell said he convened the task force in response to warnings issued Tuesday by the CDC.

“Specifically, the CDC has requested that all Americans channel their concerns about the virus into planning, preparedness and prevention,” the CDC warning said. “Local officials are requested to act now to ensure that systems are in place should there be a local COVID-19 impact.”

Natchez’s 17-member Task Force includes Dr. Lee England, internal medicine physician; Lance Boyd, CEO, Merit Health Natchez; William Thames, oncology pharmacist (retired); Tammy Crawford, chief quality officer for Merit Health Natchez; Tim Houghton, operations manager AMR Natchez; Ventris Green, chief, Natchez Fire Department; Walter Armstrong, chief, Natchez Police Department; Travis Patten, sheriff, Adams County; Melvin Davis, safety & security coordinator, Natchez Adams School District; Larnell Ford, director of operations, NASD; Chesney Doyle, community liaison to the mayor; Marc Doyle, community representative for First Presbyterian Church of Natchez; Dustin Hinkle, special assistant to the mayor & social media manager; Tessa Dykes, epidemiology nurse Mississippi Department of Health; Michelle McCain, emergency preparedness nurse (EPN) Mississippi Department of Health; Robert Bradford, director, Natchez Emergency Management; and Fred Butcher, superintendent, Natchez Adams School District, as schools are likely one of the largest impact groups for the spread of the virus.

“Grennell charged the Task Force with identifying local ‘congregate settings’ (schools, workplaces, theaters, shopping centers, restaurants, churches) where close contact with others may occur,” the mayor’s press release states. “The Task Force will work to verify that local healthcare providers, schools, businesses and

others operating in at-risk settings either have programs in place or are connected to the appropriate professional resources for guidance on preparedness and prevention. Task Force members will monitor the latest information on the spread of COVID-19 within the United States and work to ensure that key organizations, as well as the community at large, are apprised of developments and updates relevant to public health and safety.”

Boyd, CEO, Merit Health Natchez, also issued a statement about the hospital’s readiness for a potential outbreak of the coronavirus.

“Our hospital continually works to be prepared for all types of infectious diseases,” Boyd said. “We have been educating our team members on the infection control protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the Novel Coronavirus 2019, just as we do for other types of infectious diseases. We are using the screening guidelines for symptoms and risk factors and have a response plan to protect patients and our staff should it be needed. We understand the sensitivity at this time and want to reassure the community that we remain alert and ready to provide such care if necessary.”

Response to outbreak in Miss-Lou?

England said any response to an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Miss-Lou likely would depend on the severity of the outbreak.

“If the onset is severe then more would have to be done,” said England, an infectious disease specialist with Merit Health Natchez. “The problem is that we don’t know how intense the experience might be. We may not experience anything.”

England said more than likely, however, with the spread of COVID-19 the Miss-Lou will experience some degree of exposure to the virus.

The more likely effect on the Miss-Lou, however, England said is a breakdown in the supply chain being altered by outbreaks in the U.S. and China.

“We in effect have received a hurricane warning,” England said of the COVID-19’s spead. “It might be prudent to go ahead and buy things that are important to you in case things get worse.”

England suggested people consider purchasing extra medications or other vital supplies to help get them through a period in case the flow of commerce is interrupted by an outbreak.

England said he would not recommend people cancel any travel plans just yet but rather advised people to keep up with the latest information on the spread of the disease.

England noted he has a conference scheduled for May in Boston and he is not yet canceling any travel plans. If the virus spread virus gets severe, however, England said he might have to plan to travel by car instead of by airplane to minimize exposure.

“I think it is important to listen to the task force in Natchez,” England said. “Everything you will hear from there will be truthful or from the Mississippi Department of Health or the CDC.”

England said at this point it is impossible to tell how severe the COVID-19 might be in the United States or in the Miss-Lou, but he advised people to be prepared to take care of their loved ones even in the worst case.

“The reality of this virus is that it is highly contagious,” England said. “A lot of the contact is airborne as far as sneezing and coughing. A lot of transmission of these types of viruses is on the hands so avoid touching your mouth, eyes or nose. That is where a lot of contact comes from.”