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Athens prepares for health emergency in event of a coronavirus outbreak

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City Council. Photo by Sarah Donaldson.

Mayor Steve Patterson presented Athens City Council with information from the Athens City-County Health Department related to the coronavirus on Monday night as fears mount across the country of a potential national outbreak of the virus.

If there were to be an outbreak in Athens, the city’s preparedness plans would be similar to what was in place during the 2009 swine flu outbreak, according to a press release from the health department. But the statement didn’t specifically outline what those plans are.

The health department said it is closely monitoring the coronavirus and its spread in the United States. This novel coronavirus is a respiratory disease with flu-like symptoms such as a fever, cough and shortness of breath.

The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has spread to more than 60 countries, including the United States, in recent months. As of publication, there have been six coronavirus deaths in the United States — all were in Washington state, according to The Washington Post.

Currently, there are no confirmed cases of the illness in Ohio. 

But, with Ohio University students spreading to the four winds in less than a week for spring break, Patterson said he is concerned about the student body.

“I have a concern for the municipality, as well,” he said. “I just hope that people are really tracking the CDC’s travel alerts, what they’re saying and where you’re going.”

As of Monday, Ohio U restricted university-sponsored travel in countries given travel warnings by the CDC, including China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and Japan. Students who are studying abroad on a university-sponsored trip in these countries have been asked to return to the United States.

In the case of a local outbreak, Patterson said he would be willing to work with the department closely while they try to combat what could be a public health emergency.

“We’re going to let the Athens City-County Health Department really take the role,” he said. “I have a high level of faith in our public health department.”

The health department’s press release encourages residents to take steps to protect themselves from coronavirus in the same way they would from influenza. These prevention steps include hand-washing with soap and warm water and the practice of “social distancing” — standing about 6 feet away from others.

In other business, the council discussed the appointment of an interim service-safety director.

Andrew Stone, the current service-safety director, serves as an engineer officer in the Ohio Army National Guard and will soon be deployed to the Middle East, Councilmember Samuel Crowl said.

If approved, Tom Pyle, the Athens City chief of police, would take over the duties of the service-safety director in addition to his duties as chief of police. 

“It’s going to be an interesting road,” Crowl said. “But, I’m confident that the police chief will be great.”

Ralph Harvey Jr., the Athens City captain of police, would take over as the acting police department head. Both Pyle and Harvey Jr. would receive 10% increases in their salary for the 15-month period that Stone is deployed. Stone is set to return to Athens by August 2021.

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