Leaders of three Whitfield County agencies heavily involved in the local fight against COVID-19 have been preparing for an emergency like this for years, all the while hoping they’d never have to use that training.
Now that Scott Radeker of Hamilton Emergency Medical Services, Chief O’Brien of the Whitfield County Fire Department and Whitfield Emergency Management Director Claude Craig have actually been battling such an unprecedented medical emergency for months, they say they’re grateful for the overwhelmingly positive response from their staff members, citizens and businesses alike.
The three men gave updates on their efforts during the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners’ weekly County Connect live stream program hosted Thursday afternoon by Commission Chairman Lynn Laughter.
(In case you missed the webcast, you can watch it and all the other County Connect programs on the Whitfield County website at www.whitfieldcountyga.com. Starting next week, County Connect will go from a Tuesday-Thursday format to Thursday-only at 5 p.m.)
Speaking on the live stream, O’Brien dished out lots of praise for the help the fire department has received during the pandemic from a wide range of sources.
“We had some great cooperation from the schools,” he said. “Initially we needed some thermometers – we were kind of behind the curve on that. The Whitfield County School System stepped up and let us borrow some thermometers and gave us a bunch of Lysol wipes and hand sanitizers.”
Several local companies also donated other badly needed items that helped firefighters stay safe as they served as first responders for COVID-19 patients, along with other more normal emergencies like heart attacks and car accidents, the chief said.
Solutions Design Products donated 1,000 N95 masks for firefighters who have been using them daily, Trinseo provided 150 masks and 200 Level B protective suits, and Great American Cookies dropped off a cookie for the personnel at Station 8.
Textile Rubber donated 10 gallons of Vital Oxide, a powerful disinfecting product manufactured in Dalton that has quickly turned into a big seller lately across the nation, even to FEMA. One of the lieutenants at the fire department saw a YouTube video about how to use the aerosol chemical, and firefighters converted three air packs into sprayers that are used daily to disinfect all 12 stations.
“Also, on the other side, the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office was low on some supplies and we were in pretty good shape, so we gave them 12 boxes of gloves and 100 masks,” O’Brien said. “I think the thing we’re most proud of as a department is working with everybody during this process to make sure everyone’s safe and the community’s taken care of.”
O’Brien also praised a special effort by the county’s Buildings & Grounds department, led by Gary Brown. “When this all started, three of our 12 stations didn’t have washers and dryers, and it’s important for them to be able to wash their uniforms after incidents,” the chief said. “Thanks to Gary and his Buildings & Grounds department, within a week, we had washers and dryers at those three stations. They had to run electrical, had to run plumbing, so I think they did a great job behind the scenes kicking in. Like Claude said, no one person’s the hero. It was the system itself – that’s what I’m most proud of.”
The chief also praised all of his operations personnel for their extra efforts. “They canceled days off – time off with their families,” he said. “They really worked hard to make sure they were at work every day. A good thing to report is none of them have tested positive (for COVID-19). We’ve had three personnel tested, and all have been negative.”
He credited the lack of infection among the firefighters to new protocols where they ask patients, if alert and oriented and able to speak, to come out on the front porch in fresh air to be evaluated. Also helping cut the risk of infection, he said, was the firefighters have “really been working hard” on their personal protective equipment “to make sure they’re following the policies that are changing daily, so I really appreciate their hard work, the men and women who show up each and every day.”
O’Brien explained that firefighters are often the first people to respond to a medical emergency, providing a cushion for the EMS staff.
“We work closely with EMS,” he said, “but ultimately as a fire department, the majority of our calls, probably about 60 percent annually, are medical calls.”
The 12 fire stations located strategically throughout the county are able to provide a buffer for the six ambulances normally on call daily. “We run out, assist EMS with the call, and then we return back to our station,” he explained. “When EMS answers a call and has a patient to transport, depending on whether they go to Hamilton Medical Center or another facility, they might be out of service on that call for 45 minutes or so. Then we’re still there to help respond, to do basic life care on citizens if something else comes up.”
Radeker, director of Hamilton EMS, says his agency has been preparing for years for a medical emergency like COVID-19.
“We’ve been practicing for a public health emergency ever since we heard the word Ebola,” he said. “We’ve had crews specially trained for infectious disease transports, and all of our staff has been re-educated on combating infectious disease spread as well as top-notch disinfecting of all of our equipment, up to and including the back of our ambulances, the patient compartment and the cab.”
Like the fire department, they’ve also been using the Textile Rubber product to disinfect all of their stations for the past three years, Radeker said.
“Before we even heard of COVID-19, really and truly Jan. 1 is when we started modifying our operations to prepare for such an infectious event,” he said.
At that time, though, they were actually worried about a bad flu season, unaware that the coronavirus was on its way.
Still, the lessons emphasized in January to fight the flu have turned out to be vital against COVID-19. “We were trying to stress very, very basic hygiene, of course, for our crews but also for the general public,” Radeker said, “and who would have thought in today’s high-tech time, that we still come back to basic hand washing? I can still hear in my mind my mom and dad telling me to wash my hands and keep my hands away from my face, and really and truly today that’s still solid advice.”
Radeker praised the staff at Hamilton Medical Center for their efforts over the past couple of months.
“Once we get the patient assessed in the field,” he said, “the job’s not over. Arguably the job is just beginning, so I must say hello and a shout-out to my cohorts up at Hamilton Medical Center who are doing a fantastic job, not only the nurses and the doctors and the respiratory therapists, the lab who are working on our COVID-19 patients. But remember we have [other] medical emergencies that are occurring every hour. In the last three days, I’ve had the opportunity to review four cardiac cases that our crews stabilized in the field and delivered to Hamilton Medical Center where they underwent invasive cardiac procedures and lives were saved.”
Radeker pointed out in the midst of the pandemic, people are still getting hurt, still having normal sicknesses, still having heart attacks, “and one very nice thing to say and to brag about in general is we’ve not lapsed in any level of service.”
“Hamilton EMS is continuing to offer full-service paramedic service to the citizens of Dalton and Whitfield County, so again I’m very, very proud to be a part of the folks on this [computer] screen (Craig and O’Brien), and I’m proud, very proud, of Hamilton Medical Center.”
Laughter said she remembers being surprised a few weeks ago when Craig told her that EMA had put a pandemic plan in place some 15 years ago.
“I can promise you, promise the citizens, we talk weekly about (emergencies),” Craig said. “We exercise, we plan, and that’s why it’s so easy for us when we get in a situation like this, we get together, we make a phone call, we say, okay, guys, which trail are we going to go - go this way, that way, this way? This was unprecedented waters we have never sailed in, and I’m very proud of the collaboration and the will of everybody involved.”
While Radeker was careful to point out that the battle against COVID-19 hasn’t been completely won, he says had the public not supported the isolation efforts, the results could have been similar to the Spanish flu of 1917-18.
In the early days of the current pandemic, the huge projections of positive cases and deaths were based partly on that flu outbreak a century earlier, he said.
“They were terrible worst-case scenarios,” Radeker said, “if left unchecked, if [we didn’t have] social isolation and the ability of our citizens to have the discipline to stay home, to wash their hands. All of that contributed to flattening the curve. I know we’ve heard that over and over and probably are tired of hearing it, but really and truly if this was left unchecked and we had a huge surge in initial infections, we would have outrun resources. EMS, fire, police, 911, there’s no way we could have kept pace with it.
“But folks following instructions, as inconvenient as that is – everybody deserves a pat on the back,” he said. “I know we can’t celebrate yet, but when that time does come, what we can demonstrate is that when we have the citizens following basic instructions, being smart, avoiding large public gatherings, it’s making a difference. So way to go, Whitfield County!”