COVID-19 arrived in Randolph County, with two confirmed cases cropping up over the last week. But the healthcare facilities in the county - most notably Tanner Medical Center of East Alabama in Wedowee - have already been carrying out their plans for how to care for infected patients.
Tanner has combined the resources of five hospitals in West Georgia and East Alabama for what they hope is a more efficient and safe way to handle the expected influx of COVID-19 patients in Randolph County and the surrounding areas.
Tanner Medical Center of East Alabama in Wedowee has a role to play in that plan, and it does not include treating coronavirus patients.
Jerry Morris, who is the hospital administrator for Wedowee and for Higgins General Hospital in Bremen, Ga., briefed the Randolph County Health Care Authority (RCHA) on Tanner's plan at Monday's RCHA meeting in Wedowee.
The plan has made Wedowee's hospital home to what are referred to as "swing bed" patients.
"That's our patients that are receiving rehab services, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech," Morris said.
Swing bed patients are patients who have been successfully treated for their primary malady (for example, a broken hip) but require rehabilitation treatment before they are able to return to normal activities.
"It's basically for people who are ready to leave the hospital but aren't ready to go home," said RCHA chairman Bill Caypless.
Wedowee is now home to those patients, which frees up other facilities to treat those infected with the coronavirus.
The rehab patient population is predominantly elderly and therefore at greater risk of coronavirus infection. This plan keeps those elderly patients out of facilities where the COVID-19 virus is being treated.
"We've transferred all those patients to the hospital here in Randolph County, and we're further admitting any swing bed patients to the hospital here in Randolph County with the goal of consolidating that population because they're a vulnerable population," Morris said. "They're typically Medicare patients. And we're not admitting suspect or positive COVID patients to the hospital here."
Any Randolph County residents who do test positive for the coronavirus and require hospitalization will be transferred out of the county, most likely to Carrollton or Villa Rica.
As of this writing, Randolph County has just two confirmed cases of the virus, but Morris says that number is misleading. And while the healthcare facilities have their plan in place, that plan can be greatly aided by cooperation from the general public.
"We don't need to have a sense of security because there's only two in Randolph County," he said. "There's a lot in Randolph County. There's a lot that we'll never know about."
Those unknown cases magnify the importance of continued vigilance within the county for people to maintain social distancing practices and slow the spread of the virus.
"This isn't just in New York," Morris said. "This can be right here in Alabama or right here in Georgia. You can see an influx here that will overwhelm our hospitals. So any efforts we can do to be proactive in that are greatly appreciated. It will definitely save lives."
The RCHA passed a resolution to that effect at Monday's meeting, calling on "all residents of Randolph County to shelter at home, leaving only for essential reasons and maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet."
Caypless has also been instrumental in creating what he referred to as "a unified front" among local elected officials on the county and municipal level here in Randolph County. Last Thursday all four local mayors joined Caypless and Morris in circulating a message on Facebook encouraging county residents to stay home and practice social distancing.
Caypless said he has also reached out to the county commission to enlist their support for this message.