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August 7, 2020

3/19/2020 7:30:00 AM
Oneida County declares state of emergency due to coronavirus

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

The Oneida County board of supervisors declared a local public health emergency Tuesday related to the COVID-19 pandemic, giving Oneida County board chairman Dave Hintz emergency powers to do business related to the pandemic should the full board or its committees be unable to carry out necessary functions.

Those powers are limited to actions related to the health emergency, such as paying bills and vouchers, for example, and a record will be kept of any such action that Hintz might take.

The declaration of emergency came after the board heard county public health director Linda Conlon give an update on the virus and after emergency management director Ken Kortenhof reported on preparations in the county.

"We're all in this together, and we've all got to work together," Hintz told the board in a plea for unity and cooperation during the emergency. "We're in the same fish bowl and we've got to get through this together. We've got to have a positive attitude, plan for things getting worse, think about what we are going to do, and go from there."

Hintz said that county staff had met and plans were developed for what is an uncertain future that is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Among the options the county is thinking about is providing only essential services, using employees in rotating shifts, or telecommuting from home, among other things.

Conlon had some good news for the board. As of Tuesday morning, she said, no one had tested positive for the virus in Oneida County. Twenty-three people had been tested, she said, but she cautioned that not all the tests had been returned, so lack of a positive test could change at any time.

(According to Johns Hopkins, the worldwide case total stood at 201,436 cumulative cases by Wednesday morning, with 82,032 recoveries and 8,006 deaths. That's a death rate of 3.9 percent but officials caution that the real rate is likely much lower because many milder cases are not reported.)

Conlon said the county was not likely to escape the virus without anyone testing positive for it.

"The main symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, shortness of breath, and coughing," she said, adding that only about 50 percent of people with the virus would present with fever.

So, what should people do if they have symptoms?

"They should stay home if they are sick," Conlon said. "And then call your health care provider. They will give you guidance on whether they think you should come in and be tested. If you are having serious illness, then you should go in, but you should always call your provider first."

Having questions answered first over the phone is one way officials are trying to prevent the virus's spread, Conlon said. If a person does have to go in, the facility will be warned by having phone contact first.

Conlon also reiterated how the disease is spread and how to prevent it from spreading.

"You have to clean your hands often, soap and water is your best option if it is available to you," she said. "Avoid close contact. Avoiding close contact is six feet. In a grocery store, if you are at arms length away for less than 10 minutes, you're fine."

Most important, Conlon repeated, "stay home if you are sick. Cover your cough and cover your sneeze. Use a tissue if you can and then wash your hands and throw the tissue away, or cough in your elbow."

Conlon also said to clean and disinfect counter tops with Clorox or Lysol. Conlon said stores have such products in warehouses to ship and stock but they want to prevent stockpiling.

"The stores are also implementing policies of limiting the number of items that people can purchase," she said. "I think that's a good policy because we had people selling things like formula on the Marketplace and it is ridiculous. But we do have supplies. We just have to get them in and restock the stores."

Flattening the curve

Conlon said a major U.S. strategy with the virus is what is known as flattening the curve, that is, while not necessarily lowering the total number of ultimate infections, current measures may slow down the spread and stretch those infections out over a longer period of time, helping to avoid overwhelming the U.S. medical system.

"If we have the same issues that other countries have, we will run out of beds," she said. "For every patient, there's six seriously ill patients with COVID-19 for every hospital bed. Obviously, that won't work. You can't fit six people in a hospital bed."

In the worst-case scenario, Conlon said, the daily number of cases would jump dramatically, forming a mountain on a graph rather than a longer, lower dune, overwhelming the capacity of the health care system.

"By spreading the case over a longer period - the numbers will still grow, don't get me wrong - instead of a mountain, it will remain a dune," she said. "The system can absorb them."

Even if we can't change the total number of people who are going to be infected, Conlon said, by practicing social distancing we can dramatically improve the ability to cope with the outbreak.

Emergency Management director Ken Kortenhof said his agency's priorities start with EMS response and 911 call intake.

"Our priority is to keep our first responders and EMS personnel safe," Kortenhof said. "If we can't do that, they can't respond, and they can't help."

To do that, Kortenhof said that they have developed a set of questions to ask when a call comes in. The idea is to give first responders and EMS a head's up before they go to a call so they can limit the amount of contact with a potential patient, perhaps having first responders stay outside while some EMS personnel go in first to evaluate.

To keep telecommunicators safe, Kortenhof said the agency was limiting access to the sheriff's department: "If we have no one to take the calls, we are really going to struggle."

On the state level, the ban of gatherings of 10 or more people applies to churches, gyms, museums, movie theaters, and more. All malls, bars, and restaurants must close, except for takeout and delivery.

Schools will stay closed until further notice.

Grocery stores and gas stations, as well as child care facilities, are exempt.

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