Doctors in Hartwell have “dramatically” altered their operations to both treat potentially ill people and to ensure healthy patients stay that way as the number of COVID-19 cases locally is poised to increase.
To start, Dr. Daniel Gordon, of MedLink in Hartwell, said a nurse is stationed donning protective gear to take the temperature and check the symptoms of of every single patient who comes to the Gibson Street office. It is a precaution to keep both his staff and the general public safe during an uncertain and challenging time.
“We’ve been preparing for this for over a month,” Gordon said.
His office canceled physical checkups for older patients, the age group most susceptible to the disease, and sees well patients in the morning and potentially sick patients in the afternoons.
There are still sick people who don’t have the virus who need medical attention, Gordon said, but there is also the potential that every person he and his staff sees is carrying it.
“We’re not necessarily insulating ourselves in Hart County and there’s no way to stop it from coming here,” Gordon said.
MedLink has a limited number of tests for COVID-19, and he has used a few, but because commercial labs that produce the tests have informed him there are no more available for the time being, “we have to be judicious with who we test.”
As of now, Gordon said the number of potentially sick patients is about the same as it was during this most recent flu season. But he expects the situation to get worse before it gets better. He suspects the number of cases locally will peak in about three to four weeks.
“It’s going to hit rural Georgia and Hart County later than it’s going to hit everywhere else,” Gordon said.
Gordon has also increased the number of patients he is seeing remotely via telemedicine options like video chats or simple phone calls.
Hartwell Family Practice, on Athens Street, is testing patients as well if need be, but on a limited basis. Doctor Jodon Garringer said his office is also referring patients to AnMed Health’s north campus to get tested.
“Our operations are drastically altered,” Garringer said. “We are open, but have started seeing a fair amount of patients through virtual visits starting the beginning of last week. I told my staff last week that it was time to start considering every patient who walked through the door to be infectious, so we all wear N95 masks at all times when meeting with patients.”
Garringer said he believes two factors will impact the future of COVID-19 cases locally. He is hopeful that, because Hart County is a little behind the growth of the disease seen in larger areas, the social distancing orders put in place two weeks ago locally will prevent a catastrophe like the outbreak in Albany.
On the other end of that, though, Garringer said the reports he has heard of large crowds gathering at places that are still open for business do not bode well for the future.
“I hope we don’t pay for that in the coming weeks,” he said.
Gordon said regardless of measures taken locally and statewide, local cases of the disease will begin to increase, which is no one person or group’s fault. He has heard complaints about people with lake homes coming here to quarantine from the metro Atlanta area where there are many more cases. Hart County was already at risk prior to people coming to their second homes because until recently, everyone was going about their normal daily business. Everyone has been in a position to potentially bring COVID-19 to Hartwell, he said.
“There’s really no reason to look for blame, because every single one of us has the potential to get it, and not know it, and spread it around,” Gordon said.
That is why the social distancing standards are so important, Gordon said. Adhering to them is the responsibility of everyone, especially when there are many exemptions to Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order that allow people to still go out and be around others.
“The only thing we can do is keep people out of contact with other people,” Gordon said. “The only thing we have is to stay at home.”
Dealing with the virus has definitely increased stress and anxiety for Gordon and his staff because “someone could potentially come to you with a deadly virus.”
“Everybody’s got some anxiety,” Gordon said. “But the vast majority have a strong backbone of resilience, and optimism, and training. I’ve seen more health care people, including in my office here, say, ‘We’re in. This is what we’re here to do. We’re here to take care of our community and we’re ready to do it.’ That gives me a lot of optimism. It kind of fills me up, so to speak, to do my job.”
Garringer has seen a similar response from his staff, but his heart still sinks, he said, for other folks in the community, like the high schoolers, especially the seniors, whose senior year has essentially been canceled. Garringer’s son, Samuel Garringer, is a standout distance runner on the Hart County High School track team and the class valedictorian who saw his senior season dashed by the virus. Samuel Garringer will go on to compete at Clemson University next year.
“I expected to see his name a lot in (The Sun’s) sports page this spring,” Dr. Garringer said. “It’s sad they won’t have a shot at a state championship.”
Other medical practices locally are taking precautions as well. Dr. Sreeroop Sen is still open and is doing more virtual visits for his patients.
Reddy Urgent Care is seeing patients while taking the necessary precautions. They are instructing patients with COVID-19 symptoms or who think they may have contracted it to contact or go to the emergency room at an area hospital.
At Anmed Health Hartwell Family Medicine, visits are being conducted via video chat for high risk patients who don’t want to come into the office, said Liz Walker, an AnMed spokesperson.
The office is not testing, but will order tests for patients who meet the criteria.
“For those patients who need or want to come into the office, we are limiting the time they spend in the waiting room by putting them in a separate patient room shortly after they arrive,” Walker said. “If a patient has to wait in the waiting room, we recommend social distancing. We are limiting the number of people who come into the office with the patients as well.”
Staff is also washing and sterilizing everything, including their hands regularly and according to guidelines and are practicing social distancing according to guidelines.