Richmond County is Ready: County Details its COVID-19 Response
For Tommy Jarrell, Health and Human Services Director for Richmond County, it was almost as if a switch was flipped.
“Prior to middle of March, we were operating in a traditional public health world,” Jarrell said. “Then, very quick, overnight almost, everything just flipped, and suddenly we were living in a world dominated by COVID-19. Use of several of our health services dropped 90% in March, April, May and early June.”
What was traditionally a fairly standard five-day-a-week, eight-to-five workday for Jarrell and his office has recently become a nearly 24-7 role, with 95% of the day-to-day work centered around the ever-changing and evolving global pandemic.
“People are being tested seven days a week in a lot of different places, not just in Richmond County,” he said. “Results are constantly coming in. We get all the positive results for anyone who resides in Richmond County. These results don’t come in at a particular time of day, but come in throughout the day and night. If we have a positive case, we make every effort to reach that person as quickly as possible.
“Weekends, holidays -- we had 11 new positive case results come in on the 4th of July,” Jarrell continued. “Many of our positive cases don’t flow into the system until the after 6:00pm. We’re working long into the evenings, calling people and people are calling us.”
A Delayed Start
The first positive case of COVID-19 in North Carolina was officially diagnosed on March 3, 2020, and that number had ballooned to 40 total cases statewide by March 20. However, it was not until April 4 that Richmond County had their first positive case.
“We were excited for a long time, because we were one of the last 10 counties in North Carolina to get a positive case,” Jarrell said. “We feel like that put a lot of pressure on us in some ways, because every county around us had COVID-positive cases. We were testing people but not getting positive cases. On April 4 that all changed, and it just started from there.
“We’ve always had many partnerships in the community, but dealing with COVID-19 has forged many new partnerships,” he continued “We’re having daily contact with many medical providers and other organizations throughout community on daily basis. Doctors’ offices, urgent care facilities, emergency departments, school systems, community colleges, other local businesses -- we have a lot of new partners we’re interacting with very frequently that we’d only be in periodic contact with in the past.”
Ready and Waiting
While there are multiple locations in Richmond County to get tested for COVID-19, the county partners with FirstHealth of the Carolinas to conduct a drive-thru COVID-testing clinic, which takes place five days a week at the First Health Richmond Memorial Hospital.
While a COVID-test has to typically be ordered by a primary care provider, the health department can also provide an order for a COVID-19 test if an individual is demonstrating symptoms.”
“FirstHealth sponsors the clinic and provide the support staff, who handle the registering, triaging, and getting the orders in the system. The nurses from the health department go to clinic to collect the samples to send off for analysis.”
While many drive-thru test sites across the country have reported multiple-hour waits, it is rare to wait more than 15 minutes at the Richmond County drive-thru testing location.
According to Cheryl Speight, MSN, RN Director of Patient Services for Richmond County, each car takes about 5 minutes to get through.
“If two or three show up at the same time, the third car will be waiting a few minutes, but there have been no major back logs. It’s very unusual to wait more than 15-20 minutes,” she said. “Patients don’t even need to get out of their vehicle, because the staff comes to you.”
While the demand for overflow hospital beds hasn’t been witnessed in North Carolina at this time, the state has the former Sandhills Regional Hospital in Rockingham on standby if needed.
“The state has leased the facility from FirstHealth to have as potential overflow for non-COVID patients,” said Jarrell, “If hospitals in other parts of the state reach capacity, they could send patients who are not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 to Richmond County. The hospital is set and ready to go, but the need is not there yet. Richmond County is ready if we’re called upon.
“It’s a state decision,” he continued. “They could open it up as quick as they could get staff in there. It’s been cleaned and sanitized, and furnished with beds and other furniture. It’s ready to go, just the matter of a time to get it staffed, which we’ve told can be done in a day or two.”
Services provided by the health department are beginning to return to their pre-COVID levels in Richmond County, and have been doing so since early June. Jarrell estimates that the Health Department is back at about 60-65% of the typical patient load at the Health Department clinic since its significant drop at the beginning of COVID-related quarantines.
“We have started ramping back up our services,” he said. “Several of our departments dropped off with patient loads, and others did not. We hope to be back at 100% by August.”
As for their recommendations to help get back to normal Jarrell and Speight echo the “three W’s” being promoted by the state of North Carolina when it comes to the prevention and slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“We should practice social distancing by waiting six feet apart, washing hands often, and wearing face coverings in public,” Speight said.
“The facemask is not only to protect ourselves, but to protect other people as well,” Jarrell added. “In Richmond County, we have a lot of elderly people who have various health problems. There are elderly or immunocompromised people out there who have to go to the grocery store or run other errands, and by wearing a mask, you’re protecting yourself from them, but they’re also protected from you.”