With the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths increasing statewide, and confirmed cases of the virus in surrounding counties, Floyd County officials are encouraging the public to continue to follow guidance about social distancing and proper hygiene.
As of print deadline on Tuesday, COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in Pike, Martin, Johnson, Perry and other Eastern Kentucky counties, but an announcement about a confirmed case in Floyd County had not yet been made. That doesn’t mean the virus is not already here, Floyd County Health Department Director Thursa Sloan said.
“The virus is community-acquired, so it’s out there,” she said. “We are testing some, but we are doing limited testing. So, I think once we start testing, we will start showing more cases, of course, which is what always happens when you screen for anything.”
She explained that health facilities are following federal recommendations to test only people who are symptomatic, high-risk healthcare workers or people who have been in contact with someone who has the virus.
Sloan said the health department is getting Patient Under Investigation, or PUI forms, from local healthcare facilities that are testing people for COVID-19. She said the county doesn’t have a lot of those forms, however, because there isn’t much testing occurring in Floyd County.
On Sunday, April 5, Gov. Andy Beshear reported that the state entered into a contract with a Kentucky company that is expected to produce 2,000 tests per day that could be distributed to facilities outside of the more populated “Golden Triangle” areas of the state where more testing is being conducted at this time.
“But there’s a priority on those, too,” Sloan said. “Priority one would be healthcare workers because they’re taking care of the people that are sick, presumed to be positive, and first responders and anybody like that’s on the front line, per say. And then, there’d be other healthcare workers. They’ve got a system to prioritize how to start testing people that are symptomatic. And that’s when we will have positive cases.”
She explained that the lack of testing, and the lack of a confirmed case in the county (as of print deadline) is keeping some county residents from understanding the importance of following the guidelines that have been issued.
“So, this is kind of like a false sense of security right now,” she said. “I keep hearing people say we don’t have it. Well, yes we do. We don’t know who has it yet, and it won’t really matter who has it. Testing doesn’t change what the outcomes are, as far as treatment and that kind of thing. We still, you know, you stay at home until you’re at that point in time, if you advance that far along, that you’re going to need hospital care.”
County Judge-Executive Robbie Williams said testing has been among his major concerns and he expects more tests to be available in Floyd County, starting this week.
“What’s happened is the way the testing process has been set up, it has been discouraging people from going and getting tested,” he said. He explained that the wait time for results is six or seven days in this region “if you’re lucky,” and he’s hopeful that, through the contract Beshear mentioned, more tests will be available locally and results will be available more quickly.
With thousands of people out of work in the county, Williams explained that he thinks increased testing will cause restrictions to be lifted and businesses to reopen sooner to the public.
“It’s scary, but we have to get back to work. I think the important thing is we have to look at things at a regional nature, as a state or a country,” he said. “We’re going to have to get back to work. We have certain restrictions in place, and that’s some of the things that we as judge-executives, we’re going to have a call on Wednesday morning to discuss. But we can’t sit here. I mean, where do our numbers go before we go back to work? I mean, we have 15 cases in Eastern Kentucky with no deaths. Where do they have to go before we go back to work? I don’t know that we’re going to get any lower than what we are right now. Now, people are scared. People are frightened. We just have to continue to do the same things and we have to find a way to get people back to work, safely, back to work.”
He talked about how high unemployment increases the need for Floyd County residents and how the closures impact the health of Floyd County residents, like one of his family members who could not get a mammogram previously scheduled. He explained that Floyd County is not as populated as larger counties in the Kentucky where large numbers of COVID-19 cases are found and said that lack of population density can help reduce the number of cases in this county.
“We certainly think that what we have to do is we’ve got to make recommendations on a regional and local level and try to do what’s — here’s what I tell folks. I’ve been tasked as an elected official, to do what’s in the best interest of Floyd County,” he said. “I can’t speak to what’s going on in New York and these other places. I have to do what’s best for Floyd County. Our hearts go out to those people, we pray for them every day, every night that this thing breaks, but we have to start thinking about how we move forward. I think the longer that we are, that we sit idle, I think the more difficult it’s going to be for us.”
Slone, Williams and Prestonsburg Mayor Les Stapleton each talked about how, for the most part, Floyd County residents are adhering to guidelines about maintaining social distancing and not gathering in crowds. They said, however, some residents are not listening.
While most people are doing a good job at that, some people are not,” Sloan said, talking about complaints the health department has received in regards to gatherings.
“We have people calling in saying there’s too many people at this place or that place that’s still allowed to be open. We have people calling saying people are still trying to have church. We have people calling saying they don’t feel like they’re essential and they feel like they should be able to go home, those kinds of things. That happens on a daily basis,” she said.
She explained that some churches have called for guidance on holding services.
“The directives for churches are no different that anybody else,” she said. “They need to follow social distancing, except for the vehicles, actually have to be six feet apart and nobody out of the cars.”
Sloan explained that residents should only be around the people who live in their same household. She said that’s needed because people who are asymptomatic can spread the virus to others, even when they don’t know that they have the virus.
“Most people feel like they don’t have anything if they don’t feel bad, and unfortunately, I could get it and not feel bad at all, but I could certainly spread it,” she said.
She said she hasn’t visited her family who live next door to her in over a month.
She said the restrictions that have been implement are tough, but she expects to see more restrictions issued.
“I just keep seeing more restrictions, and I think we’ve got more restrictions coming this week because while a lot of the people are doing really, really good, their actions are being nullified by the people who are paying no attention to it at all,” she said. “That’s sad because it’s tough on all of us.”
She said county officials are “just trying to stay ahead of it, knowing that it’s out there.”
“In a way that hurts us because it makes everybody think it’s not here,” she said.
Stapleton also talked about complaints received about people who aren’t following the guidelines.
“What it all boils down to is with this coronavirus, is the more social distancing we do right now and the fact that we don’t gather and we eliminate the opportunities for other people to get contaminated, the shorter this time span is going to be,” Stapleton said. “That’s our whole goal is to shorten this time span, to flatten that curve and shorten our timespan.”
He said the complaints Prestonsburg received included reports of people trying to “circumvent the system.”
“It’s just people trying to operate, just trying to circumvent the system, basically, and we’ve been dealing with them without any problems,” Stapleton said. “There’s not been any major problems at all.”
He explained that some people have been vocal about their opposition to some of the social distancing guidelines the city has issued. Last week, the city and Floyd County issued executive orders limiting the number of people per family who can shop in stores to one.
“And, you know, of course, I’ve been called a communist dictator and everything else, and that’s just part of it, but what we have to do is … there’s times that you’re going to have to take measures, and the measures that have been taken, if we follow them, we’re out of this quicker than we are down the road,” he said.
He praised the people who are following the guidelines.
“We have so many people who are doing the right thing and helping us get through this, but there’s just some people that try to circumvent just so they can make things normal. And things aren’t normal right now,” he said.
He said younger kids don’t understand that they can carry the virus to other family members.
Williams suggests that parents talk to their kids about the virus, reporting that they are getting information about it from national news that highlights problems rising in areas like New York, one of the areas of the country that has been hardest hit to date.
“And I think people are getting anxious. I know I have more folks telling me they’re concerned, they’re frightened with what’s going on, but I tell folks there’s no reason to be. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we are going to be fine,” he said.
With thousands of people out of work in Floyd County, Williams believes that more testing will lead to fewer restrictions and help businesses to re-open sooner.
Floyd County’s COVID-19
Sloan said Floyd County has a high risk of complications that could be caused by this virus.
The county’s overall health has ranked “poor” for 15 years and it ranks 199th of Kentucky’s 120 counties in overall health.
“Floyd County is a high risk area,” Sloan said. “You can pick up on that by our health rankings because we have a large number of the population that are diabetics, that have lung disease like asthma, COPD, all of those different things that go along with lung disease. And we have lots of hypertension and heart disease. So, when you look at the risk of patients becoming more ill with the virus than a healthy person, our numbers are high.”
She explained that because of the county’s poor health, Fayette County residents, for example, live, on average, seven years longer than Floyd County residents.
Considering those factors has prompted local officials and medical facilities serving the county to work together on a plan to establish infrastructure that may be needed if a surge of COVID-19 hits Floyd County, causing more people to be hospitalized.
“We are working on alternate sites here as well, just because we have to fear that if we peak and we can’t do what we’re supposed to do, we will also overwhelm our healthcare system,” she said. “And it’s kind of getting to the point that we each will have to manage our own, per say. We can’t just have the luxury of shipping people off if they’re already at capacity. So, we’re going to have to try to manage folks at home. I don’t think anybody would say we have everything we need.”
She said the group is working to develop a couple of sites in the county, working primarily through hospitals and their preparedness planners, and noted that all options have been discussed, including the use of hotels in the area. Highlands ARH announced that it has already converted one of its floors into a COVID-19 unit. Beshear also reported that the state plans to use cabins at state parks to house first responders who are quarantined and that the state could also utilize lodge rooms at state parks if the need for hospital beds increase.
“I think they’re just out checking and looking at possibilities and then, more importantly, gearing up for the first influx of people,” she said.
Williams said he and Stapleton developed this plan with the health department, officials at medical facilities over the past three weeks.
“With the direction of the folks in Frankfort, we put together a plan in the event something does take place and we do have a surge,” Williams said. “We have the tent set up down at Archer Clinic. In the event this happens, they could use it for multiple reasons. Also, some of the other things that we’ve put in place in the event there is a surge. For instance, we’ve got a phone bank. We’re prepared to open a phone bank to direct folks in the event we have a surge. The testing, how the testing would work, how the information would flow, how we would deal with the public in general. We’ve got an internal plan that we put in place. We worked on it for three weeks and we certainly feel that we are prepared. We are as prepared as anyone in Kentucky.”
He explained that he thinks the virus will dissipate and then return in the winter months, causing additional problems.