First case of COVID-19 in Houston County

Dr. Charles Harkness, chief medical officer at Southeast Health, addresses the media as Southeast Health CEO Rick Sutton looks on during a press conference at the Dothan/Houston County EMA office concerning the first known case of COVID-19 in Houston County.

Southeast Health has confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in southeast Alabama and is implementing operational changes ranging from a strict visitation policy to canceling elective surgeries and procedures.

The move does not affect emergency and urgent procedures.

“As the health care leader in the region I believe that it is important for you to hear the information directly from us,” Southeast Health CEO Rick Sutton said at a news conference at the Dothan/Houston County Emergency Management Agency office on Wednesday. “We also want to make sure that while everyone needs to take COVID-19 very seriously, we should not panic or overreact to this situation.”

Sutton said Southeast Health chose to follow up a media release with the news conference to dispel any rumors or misinformation.

The release said the patient who tested positive for COVID-19 is in good condition and has been placed in an isolation room at the hospital to reduce the risk of exposure to other patients and staff. The patient is from outside Houston County.

The hospital has 17 isolation rooms and is looking to increase that by 12.

“This positive COVID-19 case has not changed what we’re doing at Southeast Health,” Sutton said, adding the hospital has been preparing to take care of COVID-19 patients for the past few weeks by implementing the protocols and standards recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“We have a team of physicians and nurses who are experienced in treating airborne infections,” Sutton said.

Dr. Charles Harkness, chief medical officer at Southeast Health, said the hospital does not want people to flood the emergency room wanting to be tested for COVID-19.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the hospital has administered 10 tests for the virus.

“Our criteria for testing the virus has been unchanged,” Harkness said. “You must meet the symptomatic criteria and need hospitalization. If you do not need to be hospitalized, we will be asking you to go home and self-quarantine.”

Community effort

Sutton outlined things the community needs to do to help flatten the curve of infection.

“We are taking strong steps now to slow the spread,” he said.

People should follow the latest CDC guidance, practice social distancing and stay home whenever possible, Sutton said.

The hospital’s visitation policy is intended to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“In most areas, we are only going to allow one visitor that must remain in the room with the patient,” Sutton said. “At all of our dining locations, they have been changed to grab-and-go only in order to practice social distancing and we have temporarily closed all nonessential operations.”

Sutton said the coronavirus pandemic has been an unsettling time for the community and the staff.

“Our team is on the front line and understands the occupational risks that go along with being there,” he said.

The hospital plans to keep employees on the payroll.

“If they are quarantined, if they are put on precautions, we intend to keep them financially whole in order for them to stay on board with us as we go through this time of crisis,” Sutton said.

To learn more about the hospital’s response and the safety measures in place visit www.southeast health.org/coronavirus.

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