Bibb County EMA Director Kirk Smith found himself running in overdrive this week, as the COVID-19 pandemic has turned to crises at all levels of government and business across the country. Smith’s mission has been to prepare Bibb County for a coordinated response by all agencies if – or likely when – the virus is confirmed in Bibb. More than simply preparing for the fallout, though, Smith leads an effort to prevent the spread and “lower the curve” that epidemiologists show as the need for social distancing.
Meetings Tuesday included a countywide meeting of all county and municipal leaders, but was instead split up into multiple meetings since too many people would be in the same room to be considered safe by social distancing standards. In the first meeting, Tommy Dockery of Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) called in and spoke on what the State is urging localities to do, and also ask what Bibb is already doing and has planned.
Dockery said an abundance of informational resources could be found on alabamapublichealth.gov and reviewed the standard practices that all agencies are urged to follow: social distancing (only interact with other individuals if it is necessary; avoid crowds; keep six feet of space between you and other people), don’t shake hands, wash hands, disinfect surfaces like doorknobs that multiple people touch without thinking about it.
Since the Federal Government and State of Alabama have both declared State of Emergency, it can be reasoned that it’s only a matter of time before cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in Bibb. Most on hand in these meetings agreed with this assertion. The question then became: What is Bibb doing to prepare, and what is the plan?
EMA Director Smith described the basis of the plan in development, and said that by the end of the week a written general plan could be expected. As is, the local governments would operate in three levels of emergency:
Level 1 – Staying alert to conditions, keeping employees and residents aware of whats going on, and spread info about how to curb the spread of the virus. This is where we were yesterday.
Level 2 – Restrict public access to government buildings while still maintaining daily operations. This can be done through the use of as many online services as possible, as well as drop boxes for paying utility bills.
Level 3 – This phase was more of a work in development, but essentially involved further lock-down of facilities.
After reviewing the basic steps of the plan, Smith asked some of those attending to give reports. Of high concern was Bibb Medical Center. “How can we help BMC?” Smith asked.
Not only is the nursing home at BMC now locked down with only access given to essential medical personnel or visitors for a medically approved reason, the hospital is now restricting access to visitors as well. Similar to flu restrictions, they are asking that all employees and visitors practice “cough etiquette,” have no social visitors (only medical or assistance need), requiring a limit of 2 visitors per patient in the building at a time, and no visitors age 14 or under will be allowed. According to representatives, the hospital has not yet seen a surge in ER patients, but they are preparing. They also ask that if you don’t have an actual emergency, please stay home and call to see what you need to do. They have even set up a hotline to help patients with this request.
AmServ ambulance service said they are enacting protocols to protect their crews from the virus, including possibly designating one ambulance for COVID use. It can take up to two hours to clean and sanitize the ambulance and personnel after a trip.
For both BMC and AmServ employees, “anyone who enters the building is getting checked” for fever, sore throat, and cough. If someone has a fever of 100.0 or higher, they will not be allowed to enter and will be sent home.
It was confirmed that the county courthouse will be closed to in-person cases from March 16 to April 16 at minimum, with the exception of urgent matters such as protection orders. It will otherwise be operational. The Sheriff’s department is no longer transporting prisoners across county lines, in or out.
Probate Judge Stephanie Kemmer expressed concern about the safety of license and tag office employees while dealing with the public. “We can’t be open and have social distancing,” she said. Concern for employees and their families took center stage, as well as volunteers for election polling stations. Kemmer’s hopes that the runoff election scheduled for March 31 would be postponed by the Secretary of State came to fruition this morning. The runoff election will now be held July 14.
As we all know, Bibb County Schools closed as of Monday, March 16. Superintendent Duane McGee reported that on Tuesday the 17th, 792 meals were handed out to students. This being a breakfast and a lunch for four days, or eight meals per student who showed up to pick up a bag – 99 students in all. This was intended to last the rest of the week, and included items that would not spoil in that length of time. In addition, schools gave out the remainder of their milk on hand, and donated remaining meats and other perishables to churches and food banks in the county.
McGee cited his biggest concern being that while they weren’t planning to feed students during spring break, which is next week, he is not sure they have resources and manpower to continue feeding children while school is out. “We’re still trying to work it out,” he said. He also praised teachers, custodians, and volunteers for their efforts while students haven’t been in the buildings with cleaning and disinfecting everything. No one will be present in the schools after Wednesday until the mandated closure ends. Currently the school closing is to end on April 6, but that could change. Many experts across the country are suggesting school may be out until August. We will have to see how this develops in Alabama.
Smith closed out the first meeting by announcing the temporary cancellation of the already postponed Active Shooter Training class that was to be held at the Bibb Board of Education Building. A new class time is to be determined.
Smith also thanked everyone for coming and expressed hope for the coming days. “It’s good to get everyone on the same page, and keep it all working,” he said.
Next came a meeting with Centreville Mayor Terry Morton and Police Chief Rodney Smith. Morton said the city would be declaring emergency status at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting – which they did. At that point, Centreville offices will be closed to the public, but systems were in place for online bill pay and drop box use. If someone wants to pay their water bill but has no internet access and cannot get out to the drop box (such as elderly who should not be going in public right now), the City will send someone out to pick up their payment.
In addition, no late fees will be charged, and no one’s water will be cut off. The condition of National Emergency carries with it the requirement that utilities be left on during this time. People who currently have their water cut off will have it turn back on if they are living at the residence. This does not mean you do not owe your bill, which still must be paid and is in fact critical for City finances that everyone continues to do so.
The Centreville Police have an action plan in place that includes protecting their officers as well as citizens from an exchange of virus via gloves and disinfectants. Many of these procedures are already in place because of daily hazards to police officers with communicable diseases.
“Centreville is ahead of the game,” Smith said.
Tuesday night at the Centreville City Council meeting, the Council did indeed declare a State of Emergency and discussed ways to keep City operations working while keeping employees as safe as possible.
Then it was on to Woodstock, where Mayors Jeff Dodson and Daniel Sims of West Blocton attended, as well as several others from all around the county. Smith reviewed what had been discussed in the previous meetings, and then asked for reports and ideas from those present.
It came to light that Woodstock and West Blocton were largely already at the planned “Level 2” with offices closed off to public access, insofar as to keep direct physical contact from city employees and the public reduced as much as possible.
Some church leaders were also present, who said they had already taken up the cause of feeding those children and elderly in need while the senior centers and schools were closed. Over 80 meals had already been handed out at that point. Dodson and others agreed that this was a primary concern, to be sure those that are effectively trapped by the suggested restricted movement of social distancing can still get what they need during this crisis. Smith urged municipalities to work with their area churches to help take care of this need, and asked that church leaders throughout the county step up and help.
Today, Wednesday March 18, an Emergency Meeting of the Bibb County Commission was called to address COVID-19 concerns as well. Again, Smith was present and presented plans to Commissioners – Charles Caddell, Keefe Burt, and Chairman Rodney Stabler were present, along with County Administrator Derek Reeves.
“Right now, we’re in good shape,” Smith began in his address to Commissioners, “I’m proud of what our citizens and leaders have done.”
Smith and Reeves had assembled a plan for the County, which had to be voted on by the Commission. The plan included activating the Emergency Powers Act, which would effectively give the County EMA ability to get things done without the “red tape” normally required of procedural and procurement activities. While the Commission would still be in charge of EMA, Burt and Caddell were at first not convinced of the need for this at present.
“I feel like we’re jumping the gun, and playing into the paranoia going on,” Burt said. He went on to say that he agreed we would likely eventually get to the point of needing it in Bibb, but didn’t think now was the time.
“I don’t know of any county not doing this right now,” Smith responded. The goal being to be ready to take action without delay, as well as the ability to document all their actions within time of emergency that could potentially be reimbursed by federal dollars.
After lengthy discussion on the matter, two motions were presented for vote. First, an State of Emergency had to be declared, which passed. Then, after more discussion a compromise was reached on the second point, being whether or not to close County offices to the public. Burt voted no on both measures, simply because he felt it was a premature action, playing into the present hype of the national media. However, the vote to close County offices immediately after the trigger of a confirmed case in Bibb County passed.