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A petition from 70 professionals in the healthcare sector—37 of which are residents of Oconee—advocates for a shelter-in-place ordinance in Oconee County similar to the one passed last week in Athens-Clarke County.

As of Tuesday evening, Oconee County had five confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Athens-Clarke County had 17 confirmed cases and one death.

Earlier this week, the Oconee Board of Commissioners received a signed letter from nurses, doctors and others in the medical field in addition to a second letter from 10 Oconee County citizens, including Dr. Neil Priest, an ER physician at St. Mary’s.

BOC Chairman John Daniell told The Oconee Enterprise, “Mandatory quarantines or shelter-in-place requirements at a local level often struggle to be effective due to the large number of exceptions that are allowed in order to meet basic living needs such as the procurement of groceries and medications.”

Daniell said Oconee County supports Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order on restrictions and that “the vast majority of Oconee citizens are making attempts to comply with the guidance issued by the CDC.”

Kemp’s executive order limits all restaurants to take out, drive-thru or delivery methods and states that no more than 10 people may gather at a business unless people can maintain at least six feet of separation at all times.

“Under our ordinance, a declaration of emergency for the state by the governor automatically puts Oconee County in a local state of emergency,” according to a press release from county officials.

“With restaurants closing dine-in services, park athletic fields and buildings closed, educational entities closed, theaters closed, and most retail stores closed, there is really no public gathering spaces remaining,” said Daniell.

The letter from healthcare professionals states, “Too many people are still congregating in businesses and neighborhoods with little regard for the risk they pose to others and to our healthcare system.”

Using population data and assumptions about the spread of the virus, both letters sent to the BOC make a conjecture that Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital would not have enough ICU beds in the near future if mandated social distancing is not enforced.

“That would mean .... critically ill Oconee senior citizens going without needed care, and suffering and likely dying as a result,” stated the letter from the 10 Oconee citizens. “When you actually consider the numbers, the magnitude of the problem we face as a community is inescapable.” 

The letters that were sent to the BOC were coordinated by individuals and were not fact checked or endorsed by the executive staff of Piedmont Athens Regional or St. Mary’s. 

The Enterprise contacted public relations specialists at both hospitals, and both spokespeople said neither hospital is commenting at this time on the citizen-led effort to lobby the BOC for a shelter-in-place ordinance. 

The hospitals have put out press releases about visitor restrictions. St. Mary’s issued a statement that it is postponing non-essential surgeries and certain radiology procedures. 

“However, we continue to schedule and perform essential procedures when a delay would harm the patient,” according to a press release from St. Mary’s.

The Oconee County Sheriff’s Office has encouraged citizens to stay home and limit social interactions, but Sheriff Scott Berry has raised questions about how a local shelter-in-place ordinance would be enforced. Berry noted that Athens-Clarke County is facing a legal challenge from a gun shop.

Gun stores are considered “essential businesses” in Athens and are thereby exempt from the ordinance, but the 29-page complaint challenges the ordinance on closing non-essential businesses.

On social media, Chief Deputy Lee Weemsstated that “enforcement inevitably leads to conflict, and conflict inevitably leads to some level of force.” 

“What the sheriff is asking is how far those calling for an order are willing to go to enforce such an order,” said Weems.

However, local and state governing authorities are already enforcing restrictions on where people can congregate.

Oconee Parks and Recreation Director Lisa Davol said failure to comply with park restrictions after staff enforcement may result in being banned from all Oconee County parks for one year.

In addition, the Georgia Environmental Health Office has the authority to close any restaurant that is keeping its dining space open.

“COVID-19 is a challenge that requires that we work together,” stated the letter from the 10 Oconee County citizens. “It is most likely one of the greatest challenges Oconee County has ever faced. To be successful, we need to be united in the understanding that we all need to make contributions to the greater good. Oconee citizens need to know that our elected leaders are guiding us through the process.”    

A new testing option is set up by the Department of Public Health. This option is focused on patients with moderate symptoms. In order to set up an appointment for testing, please call 706-340-0996. Piedmont continues to have its drive thru testing site as well, and patients can call 866-460-1119 to be screened and set up an appointment. For St. Mary's, please call 706-389-3000. These options are by appointment only.

Both hospitals are also implementing a limited visitor policy and are screening all entrants.

For more on this story, see the March 26 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, on sale now at convenience stores and grocery stores and newspaper boxes throughout Oconee County. To subscribe, call (706) 769-5175 or visit the tab on our website. 

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