Inside Jefferson County’s COVID-19 war room

Inside Jefferson County’s COVID-19 war room
Jim Coker, Jefferson County EMA Director and co-leader of the area's Unified Command Center, works with representatives from numerous agencies on the community's management of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Marvin Gentry/The Birmingham Times)

A bank of TV flat-screens displaying colorful maps and statistical data flicker high on the wall inside the command center of the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency. Normally, officials gather in this space to monitor dangerous storms that threaten the Birmingham area.

On this morning, however, the atmosphere in the center is different, as administrators gather to deal with a menace more deadly than severe weather: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Welcome to the Jefferson County Unified Command Center in downtown Birmingham. Set up two months ago, this is where some of the area’s top specialists gather to strategize about combating the spread of the disease.

“It’s unlike anything we’ve ever faced,” says Jim Coker of COVID-19. (Marvin Gentry/The Birmingham Times)

“Unlike a tornado, which you can see – you know where the damage path is and you know who is involved – (COVID-19) is something you don’t see,” said Jim Coker, Jefferson County EMA director. “You don’t know where it is and, maybe for two weeks, you don’t know who is involved. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever faced.”

Coker and Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson are co-leaders of the Unified Command Center, which involves people from the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH), city and county government departments, medical facilities, response agencies, correctional facilities, places of worship, homelessness advocates and volunteer groups.

Representatives, or liaisons, from each of those agencies communicate several times a week to address the health crisis that has posed challenges worldwide.

Making the matter more daunting are the social distancing protocols that prevent officials from meeting in person, so the entire response effort is being handled virtually – a first for all involved.

“We are using technology to accomplish what would normally be done in person,” Coker said. “These are the many Zoom calls, conference calls, dashboards.”

Twice a week, there is a “command call,” during which Coker, Wilson and section chiefs (officials who oversee areas such as operations, planning, logistics, health care and public information) and their liaisons provide updates on the fight to reduce the spread of COVID-19. During the rest of the week, planning section team members “talk about COVID-19 from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed,” Coker said.

While people from several agencies and groups work together, no elected officials are a part of this team.

“They’ve got jurisdictions to run,” Coker said. “They’ve got cities to run. You don’t see county commissioners here, same reason: They have a county to run. You do not see police chiefs or fire chiefs, (though) some of their subordinate staff are here.

“In spite of COVID-19, everything that goes on normally during a day (for public officials) is still going on.”

Weekly meeting

The weekly meetings last about an hour and are virtually attended by all of the section chiefs and liaisons. Hoover City Administrator Allan Rice or Matt Russell, executive director of the Alabama Fire College, run the meetings. Rice is a former firefighter and paramedic who has an undergraduate degree in nursing from UAB and has experience dealing with matters on municipal and medical fronts. Russell is a former Birmingham firefighter.

Others who participate in the calls include Dr. Sarah Nafziger, a professor in the UAB Department of Emergency Medicine and co-chair of the university’s Emergency Management Committee; Andra Sparks, presiding judge for the city of Birmingham Municipal Court and a former captain and attorney in the U.S. Army; and Tara Harmon, a registered dietitian and nutritionist with expertise in hunger and food insecurity.

Jefferson County’s Unified Command Center, where officials are spread out because of social distancing protocols. (Marvin Gentry/The Birmingham Times)

Feeding

Since the health crisis hit, nearly 450,000 people in Alabama have applied for unemployment. With the increased number of people out of work, many families are in need of food. The Unified Command Center realized this was a concern early on and has worked to address the issue.

This month, the Central Alabama Food Bank and the Christian Service Mission reported feeding 69,309 families, which amounted to 215,051 pounds of food. Officials note that several groups are helping with meal delivery, including area churches, such as the Church of the Highlands McCalla campus, and Kikstart Inc., a program that provides nutritious food, serving mostly children. In addition, people are working to feed groups across the Jefferson County, Coker said.

Health orders

Another crucial part of the Unified Command Center efforts involves health orders, such as those issued by the state of Alabama, city of Birmingham an d JCDH, as well as Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide “Safer at Home Order” that took effect May 11.

“Our Unified Command Center will continue efforts to promote the safety of our community as we enter this new phase of ‘Safer at Home,’” Wilson said.

Last week, Ivey announced the end of some restrictions on gyms, restaurants and gatherings. Wilson was among public health experts in Birmingham who warned that coronavirus cases haven’t receded in the state and could spike if people don’t continue precautions.

On May 12, the Birmingham City Council extended its mandatory face-covering ordinance until May 22.

Wilson said he strongly recommends that people avoid large groups for at least two more weeks.

“It’s not an order, it’s a recommendation. Just because you’re allowed to do something doesn’t mean it’s the smart thing or the right thing to do,” Wilson said, adding that the number of coronavirus cases hasn’t been decreasing in Alabama.

Some counties have seen large increases in recent weeks.

“I am very, very concerned about the fact that we do not have decreasing incidence of the disease in the community,” Wilson said. “COVID-19 is still with us. It’s still with us quite steadily.”

Meanwhile, Unified Command Center leaders said the members “will continue to operate until the need ceases to exist.”

Don Lupo, the city of Birmingham’s Operations Manager, at the Unified Command Center. (Marvin Gentry/The Birmingham Times)

Know how it spreads

  • There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
  • The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus.
  • The virus is thought to spread mainly between people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet), through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby and possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

Take steps to protect yourself

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Put distance between yourself and other people if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.

Take steps to protect others

  • Stay home if you are sick, except to get medical care. Learn what to do if you are sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, or use the inside of your elbow.
  • Throw used tissues in the trash.
  • If you are sick, wear a face mask when around other people (e.g., sharing a room or vehicle) and before you enter a health-care provider’s office. If you are not able to wear a face mask (for example, because it causes trouble breathing), then you should do your best to cover your coughs and sneezes. People who are caring for you should wear a face mask if they enter your room.

Clean and disinfect

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks.
  • If surfaces are dirty, clean them. Use detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
  • To disinfect, most common EPA-registered household disinfectants will work. Use disinfectants appropriate for the surface.
  • To make a disinfectant solution using household bleach, mix 5 tablespoons (one-third cup) of bleach per 1 gallon of water; or 4 teaspoons of bleach per 1 quart of water. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application and proper ventilation. Check to ensure the product is not past its expiration date. Never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser. Unexpired household bleach will be effective.
  • If using alcohol solutions, ensure the solution has at least 70% alcohol.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products (e.g., concentration, application method and contact time, etc.).
Jim Coker, director of the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency, confers with an official at the county’s Unified Command Center. (Marvin Gentry/The Birmingham Times)

In need of food

Anyone in the county in need of food may call the United Way 2-1-1 line. The United Way needs your contact information and your ZIP code. Based on your location, they will connect you to the appropriate agency to help fill your needs.

The United Way also has a phone line for older adults: 1-800-AGE-LINE (800-243-5463). Older people or their family members can call and get them set up for Meals on Wheels where applicable.

Volunteering

The Command Center has centralized opportunities for anyone within Jefferson County who wants to donate time to volunteer. Interested people should visit https://olc.alabamafirecollege.org/ to register, take brief online training and select an area of interest. Once completed, save your form and a member of the command team will be in touch. Please do not volunteer if you have health issues, such as asthma, diabetes and heart or lung medical problems.

REMEMBER: COVID-19 can be spread by people who have no symptoms, so everyone should act as if they or others around them are infected.

This story originally appeared on The Birmingham Times’ website.

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