Local cities and school districts are preparing for the potential spreading of the COVID-19 coronavirus by taking cues from state and federal agencies, and hospitals are screening patients for symptoms. And the Roman Catholic Archdiocese is taking extra precautionary measures to prevent spreading by halting a Communion tradition.

An illustration created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that depicts a coronavirus. (Special)

Gov. Brian Kemp announced March 2 that Georgia’s first confirmed cases of the virus have been found in two Fulton County residents.

COVID-19 is the disease caused by a previously unknown type of coronavirus. There is not yet a vaccine or specific antiviral treatment for COVID-19, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though several vaccines are in development. Most people infected with the disease have no or mild symptoms, but it can be fatal, especially by causing pneumonia.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 appears to spread person-to-person. It remains unclear how contagious it is and exactly how it spreads, according to the CDC. It is believed to spread as a respiratory disease when an infected person sneezes, coughs or touches a surface after touching their nose or mouth, according to state officials. For the latest information, see cdc.gov.

Local schools

Atlanta Public Schools is closely monitoring all developments and district officials are staying in close contact with local, state and federal agencies to track development, a release from the district said.

APS said any school closings will be led by the federal government and the district is receiving guidance from agencies for potential emergency closures.

“I read news reports that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for all schools in his country to be closed through the spring holidays,” APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said on a Feb. 27 post on her blog. “As an educator – even one 7,000 miles away from Japan – that gives me concern and pause.”

Carstarphen also said the district is looking into more ways to supplement missed classroom time if it comes to extending school closures for the longer term.

“These kinds of services will require more planning, which is ongoing,” Carstarphen said on the blog post.

At the DeKalb County School District, a cross-divisional coronavirus taskforce has been developed by Interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson to continually review current guidance from local, state and federal agencies and proactively identify a strategic response plan, according to a written statement from the district.

“Schools have been reminded of appropriate hygiene strategies to keep germs from spreading,” the statement said. “We are also monitoring daily student and staff absences and ensuring that appropriate cleaning strategies are being used in all schools and centers.”

The Fulton County School System is reviewing its existing pandemic plan and making any necessary changes to respond to scenarios, a statement from the district said. The plan is fluid and will be updated as new information becomes available.

“We are reinforcing the importance of healthy hygiene with our students and employees,” the district said. “While the full impact of an outbreak cannot be predicted, planning for operations under such conditions can lessen the impact of the event on our students, staff, facilities and mission.”

 Local cities prepare

The city of Atlanta has released a page on its website with frequently asked questions and resources from local, state and federal agencies for residents to find information about the virus.

“The full efforts of the city are invested in the urgent and deliberate coordinated response with federal and state partners this health threat demands,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a press release. “City officials—including those appointed to the Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force—are working in concert to ensure the well-being of the people of Atlanta.”

The city of Brookhaven has been in communication with the state Department of Health and CDC since last week and will begin promoting information from these two sources through social media on March 3, said city spokesperson Burke Brennan.

The city does not have its own health department and is relying on county, state and federal officials for the correct information to disseminate to the public, Brennan said.

Speaking in an interview for the Reporter Extra podcast, Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch said the city has is in regular contact with the DeKalb County Board of Health and the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency.

“We have a disaster plan in place, our city does, where if city hall couldn’t open for a reason there’s a plan for everybody to work from home,” Deutsch said in the interview. “One key thing is, don’t panic. Panic isn’t going to make it better.”

The city of Sandy Springs is working with the DPH and emergency management officials in monitoring and preparing for any spread of the virus in the community, city spokesperson Sharon Kraun said in an email.

In keeping with recommendations from the CDC, the city is taking precautionary steps to help ensure a safe environment within city buildings, including added hand sanitizers and increased frequency in cleaning procedures, Kraun said.

Kraun said the city is also working closely with Dr. Alexander Isakov, who serves as the city’s medical advisor as well as a professor at Emory University.

“We encourage all residents and visitors to practice good handwashing, stay home when ill and sneeze into a tissue and then throw the tissue away to help prevent the spread of all viruses,” Kraun said in an email.

Hospitals screen for symptoms

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in Sandy Springs said the hospital is ready to treat patients with a known or suspected case of coronavirus infection.

“Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has the appropriate personal protective equipment, plans for location management and staff trained to care for children who may have infections with all pathogens—such as suspected COVID-19 infections—should they require clinical care,” the hospital said in a written statement.

Northside Hospital in Sandy Springs said it has had no cases of the virus there or at any of their other four locations in Georgia in Canton, Cumming, Duluth and Lawrenceville and that the DPH is notified about all potential cases.

“Our Infection Control specialists and clinical leadership have a coordinated and comprehensive plan to handle infectious disease patients, adhering to the CDC’s recommendations and guidelines for prevention, surveillance and treatment,” Northside spokesperson Katherine Watson said in an email. “All patients are screened for clinical features (fever and respiratory illness) and epidemiologic risk (travel, exposure) as recommended by CDC.”

Watson also said that if a patient has any clinical symptoms and has traveled within the last 14 days from Wuhan City, mainland China, or the Hubei Province in China, or if they have been in close contact with a person who is under investigation for the virus, the patient is masked and taken directly to an airborne isolation room, where they will remain while in the hospital.

Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Sandy Springs did not respond to a request for comment.

Piedmont Healthcare, which operates 11 metro Atlanta hospitals, including its flagship Piedmont Atlanta Hospital in Buckhead, as well as urgent care centers throughout the metro, is also screening patients and is notifying DPH of potential cases.

“Piedmont is following CDC guidelines in screening patients who have fever and lower respiratory illness symptoms and who have traveled to areas affected by COVID-19 or have had close contact with such a traveler,” Piedmont spokesperson John Manasso said.

Manasso also said Piedmont has been educating clinical staff on the screening guidelines and reinforcing isolation procedures.

“The elevated screening is being conducted at all of our hospitals or ambulatory clinic settings, including emergency rooms, urgent care and physician practices,” Manasso said.

Religious response

To help prevent potential spreading of the virus, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta has decided to not distribute the chalice containing wine (to represent the “Precious Blood”) during the Communion ritual at its churches and schools.

According to Archdiocese spokesperson Maureen Smith, this is often done anyway during flu season.

“We decided to take this action now to ease concerns and be proactive,” Smith said.

In addition, individual pastors can decide whether to suspend the “exchange of peace,” where worshipers greet each other, typically with a handshake or hug, according to Rev. Joel Konzen, the diocesan administrator, in a Feb. 28 email to all archdiocese church and school clergy and staff.

MARTA response

MARTA said it taking steps to prevent the spreading of the virus and is making decisions based on recommendations from the CDC and the American Public Transportation Association.

“MARTA will continue to thoroughly clean its facilities, rail stations, buses, and trains, with a focus on high touch areas such as handrails, elevator buttons, escalators and Breeze machines,” MARTA spokesperson Stephany Fisher said in a press release.

Tips for preventing the spread of the virus have been distributed to all MARTA employees and placed in all MARTA facilities, the release said.

–Hannah Greco, John Ruch and Dyana Bagby

Update: This story has been updated with a comment from MARTA about its preparation and a comment from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Correction: A prior version of this story incorrectly named Northside spokesperson Katherine Watson. 

Hannah Greco

Hannah Greco is writer and media communications specialist based in Atlanta.