Beaufort’s health officials, emergency managers brace for coronavirus, along with the rest of the country
By MINDY LUCAS
Last week, just a week after the first few cases of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, in South Carolina were announced, the number of confirmed cases of the virus suddenly doubled in the Palmetto State.
A few days later, on March 13, the number doubled again.
At press time, on Tuesday, March 17, there were a total of 47 cases in South Carolina, including four confirmed cases in Beaufort County.
And while health officials have said to expect that number to continue to grow, especially now that testing is becoming more available, officials on the front lines say it’s more important than ever to practice those preventive measures – wash your hands, avoid crowds, practice social distancing – now so common in everyday vernacular that even young children can recite them.
“All of these general measures are super important and they’re all we have right now,” said Beaufort Memorial Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer Kurt Gambla.
Since last week, the hospital has tightened its visitation policy allowing only one visitor per patient and has expanded that “one-visitor” policy to all of its outpatient sites as well.
It has also separated the sick from others coming into its Emergency Room and is encouraging those who feel sick to use its telemedicine service, BMH Care Anywhere, or its Call Ahead service, which can provide patients with medical attention before going into a healthcare center or opting for a higher level of care.
But the biggest change in how health officials are proceeding since last week, Dr. Gambla said by phone on Friday, March 13, is that permission to go ahead with specimen collection has been lifted.
“Before, in order for DHEC to process the specimen …we needed to present the case, get those permissions, collect the sample and send it to them,” he said.
Now, all that is needed is a physician order to collect a specimen, though the hospital will still have to complete forms citing why the test is needed and will follow an “algorithm” in deciding who should get tested.
That algorithm will include such symptoms as a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. In addition, the patient will be asked about recent travel and close contact with anyone diagnosed with, or awaiting results for, COVID-19.
Health officials are also expecting other labs, in addition to the state’s lab, to come online soon, to help process the tests.
“Our hope and expectation is that as more labs become available and the testing process gets refined and better, the ultimate result that everybody is hoping for and expecting is the turn around time will be quicker,” he said.
In the meantime, the hospital’s emergency management team is meeting two to three times a day to discuss or update planning as needed.
“Everything that we do is driven off the latest and evolving CDC and DHEC guidance,” he said.
Dr. Gambla, who lives in Beaufort and has family himself, said that while he, personally, was concerned, he was not panicked.
“The concern is how do we get ahead of this thing and how prepared are we in terms of our own training, our protocols and resources, so what makes me concerned but not panicked is we are very, very well prepared,” he said, adding that the hospital has a number of contingency plans in place, in response to an increase in cases.
County and City Government
The county officially enacted its Emergency Ordinance on Monday, March 16, in which members of Beaufort County Council met and declared a public health emergency.
At the meeting, County Administrator Ashley Jacobs said that in a pandemic situation, the county follows the state’s protocols for responding.
“S.C. DHEC is the lead agency for this,” she said.
County council members at Monday’s meeting also encouraged residents to avoid crowds and practice social distancing.
In addition, the county has enacted its own emergency plan closing some county buildings or offices through at least Tuesday, March 31. Some of those include library branches, recreational facilities and pools and such offices as the assessor’s office.
It has also taken steps to limit staff availability or, in some cases, has encouraged staff to conduct business by telephone and electronically as much as possible.
And residents can do their part, county officials say. For those offices that will remain open, the county has asked that residents limit their interactions with county staff as much as possible, to expect social distancing, and to do as much business they need to do with the county online.
Residents are also strongly encouraged to limit their visits to county buildings unless they have an urgent business matter that must be handled in person.
Taking a similar course of action, the city of Beaufort has curtailed its activities in response to the outbreak.
All public meetings, except council meetings, have been canceled, and city staffing has been reduced to minimal levels. Non-essential staff will work from home
Residents can watch live council meetings on the city’s Facebook page and are also encouraged to call City Hall at 843-525-7070 before coming in for any service.
Feeling sick or having symptoms?
If you’re feeling sick or are concerned you may have COVID-19, call your primary care physician or urgent care center, or use Beaufort Memorial Hospital’s telemedicine service, before showing up in person. BMH Care Anywhere is available in the App Store, on Google Play and at www.bmhcareanywhere.org.
For more information about COVID-19 guidelines, testing criteria and self-isolation instructions visit www.scdhec.gov/health/infectious-diseases or www.cdc.gov/coronavirus.
Members of the public who would like information related to COVID-19 may also contact the DHEC Care Line at (855) 472-3432. A triage nurse will be available to provide guidance.
Above: Beaufort Memorial Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer Kurt Gambla.