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‘Communication effort from the top shelf down’: Apart, Carroll County leaders work together to combat crisis

Carroll County Commissioner Steve Wantz Discusses the county's response to COVID-19

It was early afternoon on Friday when Carroll County Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1 and president of the board, stepped up to the TV news microphone in the windswept parking lot of the Carroll County Office building. CNN had come to Westminster to discuss the Pleasant View Nursing Home, in Mount Airy, where more than 100 residents and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and 10 have died.

“That actually has become an incredibly hot topic and certainly because of the fact that the challenge down there was so bad, but importantly, other jurisdictions are now reaching out to us to create what I would call a learning experience,” Wantz said an interview with the times after the cable news cameras stopped rolling. “I had a teleconference with the city of Annapolis, that has five or six long-term care facilities, and they wanted to know” what they could to do Annapolis to make sure they don’t have a similar situation.

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The lessons Wantz was able to impart? In a time of COVID-19, it’s all about communication.

“You have got to be involved and in communication with the leaders of these facilities,” Wantz said. “Most notably, either the managers of these facilities, but more importantly the medical directors of these facilities. If you don’t get in touch with them, then all communication is off and you have broken that path you need to be on to mitigate any issue there.”

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But that goes for everything in Carroll County at the moment.

Since declaring a local state of emergency on March 13, Wantz, as president of the Board of Commissioners, has been empowered to make decisions more like a county executive, but has been keeping in close contact with the other four commissioners, emergency management, health department and law enforcement representatives, with twice daily conference calls in some cases.

“I have a new respect for teleconferencing,” Wantz said. “We feel as if that communication effort from the top shelf down helps with all the things are are attempting to do.”

Things like coordinating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they surveyed the Carroll County Agriculture Center’s Shipley Arena as a site for a possible temporary hospital on Friday. It’s the sort of thing Carroll County Emergency Manager Valerie Hawkins is doing, whenever she isn’t keeping in touch with state or other county officials on twice a day conference calls.

“Early mornings and afternoon are the times we are doing all of that communication and then in the middle of the day and into the evening as well we are doing the actually things that are tasked out,” Hawkins said. “[Personal protection equipment] requests, items for agencies that allow them to help with the response; that’s the type of thing we are working on.”

From left to right, Carroll County Health Officer Ed Singer, Emergency Management Manager Valerie Hawkins, and health planner Maggie Kunz discuss plans to prepare for the coronavirus at the Board of Commissioners meeting March 5, 2020.
From left to right, Carroll County Health Officer Ed Singer, Emergency Management Manager Valerie Hawkins, and health planner Maggie Kunz discuss plans to prepare for the coronavirus at the Board of Commissioners meeting March 5, 2020. (Mary Grace Keller)

Carroll’s Emergency Operation Center is activated at the “partial” level, Hawkins explained, though it’s hard to define what that means given the current circumstance.

There’s a scale of levels of activation for the Emergency Operations Center, beginning at normal, moving to enhanced, then to partial and finally to full, but the way they are defined did not anticipate a pandemic that would require social distancing among staff, according to Hawkins. The whole system is designed around responding to snow storms, explosions or major law enforcement emergencies.

“Those levels are really built on the idea of an in-person [Emergency Operations Center] — a physical location where we bring people together,” Hawkins said. “We are trying not to bring people together, because of the social distancing we are trying to do. So the levels are much more fuzzy than they would be in a traditional activation.”

So it’s a very different mode of operation than they ever anticipated, with much more virtual communication in lieu of 12-hour shifts manning a command center, but Hawkins said everyone involved is making it work.

“I think it’s working well, the virtual concept,” she said. “We have good buy in and participation from all the agencies.”

Carroll Hospital President Leslie Simmons, who was also at the Shipley Arena on Friday, has often lauded the cooperation between the county agencies and entities, such as the hospital, health department and county departments such as Citizen Services, but she said that has been especially true over recent weeks.

Leslie Simmons, Executive Vice President of LifeBridge Health and Carroll Hospital, reports on the hospital's role in managing coronavirus and coping with the outbreak at the Pleasant View Nursing home in Mount Airy on March 29, 2020
Leslie Simmons, Executive Vice President of LifeBridge Health and Carroll Hospital, reports on the hospital's role in managing coronavirus and coping with the outbreak at the Pleasant View Nursing home in Mount Airy on March 29, 2020 (Amy Davis)

“I am thrilled the way all our agencies are working together, particularly the hospital and the health department. It’s been phenomenal,” she said. “We worked very closely together on Pleasant View. It’s not just about what’s happening in my hospital, its about what’s happening in the county and how we can assist.”

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Simmons is also the executive vice president for LifeBridge Health, of which Carroll Hospital is a part, so she is also plugged into what is going on across the region in preparation for the expected coming increase in COVID-19 cases.

“it’s been a little crazy because my role is beyond just Carroll —I am coordinating operations for all of the LifeBridge entities, so that’s Sinai, Northwest, Carroll, Grace and Levinedale — but all in all, I think people are really focused,” she said. “I feel like we are as prepared as we can be.”

The meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers was part of LifeBridge’s overall preparations looking at surge capacity if there is a flood of new COVID-19 cases, according to Simmons, as well as supply lines of medications and equipment.

“There are drug supply shortages and we are looking at what are alternatives,” she said. “What is frightening is we just don’t know how long this is going to be or how significant the surge will be.”

By Sunday morning, the coronavirus had resulted in more than 8,500 deaths in the United States out of some 315,000 people who have tested positive for the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Going forward, Wantz hopes everyone in Carroll will take advantage of the efforts the county is making to disseminate the latest information, beginning with the Carroll County Government website — www.carrollcountymd.gov — and Carroll Connect email subscription.

“I encourage everyone to please get engaged with that,” he said. "Sign up for that because every press release, everything that is going on is pushed out over that and they will be able to know what the latest information is."

And in the coming week, Wantz hopes to hold some sort of virtual town hall with public officials.

“We’ll be able to get that moving along so that folks will have the opportunity to call in if they like to get the latest information,” he said.

Anyone who thinks they or a family member might be showing coronavirus symptoms can call the Carroll County Health Department’s COVID-19 hotline, which is available 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. seven days a week at 410-876-4848, or contact their doctor. After hours, callers may leave a message or call 211. People with emergencies should continue to call 911.

Updates on the number of Maryland cases and other important information can be found on the health department’s COVID-19 webpage at cchd.maryland.gov/covid-19/.

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