Before discussion even began at the Monday noon meeting of the Vermillion City Council, Mayor Jack Powell expressed his desire to make one thing crystal clear as aldermen began talking about the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He wanted the city council to make an official statement about the city’s response to coronavirus at that night’s regular meeting. And he wanted it based on facts.
“I think we should make a statement of some sort,” the mayor said. “I think we should do that this evening and basically my idea is that it should be based on what we learn at this noon meeting … to me, it’s just a short statement this evening saying we should follow the guidance of our leaders -- local as well as national and international.”
By Monday night’s regular meeting, that statement had been crafted and was read by the mayor:
“The City of Vermillion and Clay County recognize the important role that each unit of government performs in providing essential community services, and we all take this responsibility seriously every single day. Protecting the health and safety of citizens and visitors is our priority. In recognition of the COVID-19 virus, the City of Vermillion and Clay County are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations and discouraging the gathering of large groups of people. Avoiding large groups will slow the spread of the virus and make it easier for medical services to manage the situation and care for those in need.
To ensure the health and welfare of residents and City/County employees, we ask all people who may feel ill, are experiencing illness, or who may have been exposed to COVID-19, to avoid visiting public places. At this time, there is no need for healthy people to avoid public spaces; however, whenever possible, please limit time and group sizes in public spaces, or conduct business over the phone or online. In some instances, you may not be aware that you are infected and could spread germs. Everyone should follow the CDC guidelines and wash their hands often, try to avoid close contact with others, and stay at home if feeling sick.
We encourage community members to learn more about COVID-19, precautionary measures, and updated status reports by visiting the CDC website, South Dakota Department of Health website, or calling the South Dakota COVID hotline at 1-800-997-2880. The City of Vermillion and Clay County will continue to monitor the situation closely and make additional recommendations if necessary. Please remember that this situation is only temporary and the majority of people will not become seriously ill, but as a community, we must work together to protect one another and our most vulnerable citizens.”
Earlier that day, at the city council’s noon meeting, both Police Chief Matt Betzen and Fire Chief Matt Callahan shared the steps their departments have taken to prepare for coronavirus.
“Our primary focus in the last week has been preparing our people to make sure we can effectively respond during this crisis and keeping our officers healthy,” Betzen said.
That means some changes in routine practices have been made.
“Traditionally, the Vermillion Police Department has responded to every medical call immediately to provide even just help and comfort until the ambulance arrives,” Betzen said. “We are changing that protocol for when people call in with flu-like symptoms, we’re backing off.”
Police dispatchers, he added, are emphasizing the focus of their questions to people who call for help to include asking callers if they have a fever, are coughing, are short of breath and if they have they traveled recently.
“We’re also working on educating our officers so they can educate the public on what all of this means,” Betzen said, “and why are we encouraging people to social distance.”
He noted that the police department has canceled some of its regular social outreach programs and has stepped up the cleaning of patrol vehicles. Previously, cleaning had taken place at the end of every day; now, cleaning takes place at the end of every shift.
“Our main focus is on cleaning, cleaning, cleaning and maintaining six feet,” Betzen said, referring to the CDC guideline to maintain six feet of distance from other people. “Most of what we’re doing is making sure that when people call in, we’re talking to them and making sure that we’re not putting our officers into a situation where they can’t do much anyway. That’s what EMS is for, and we’re trying to stay healthy while we weather this. And, God forbid, if we do have some sort of social disturbance, we’re planning on preparing for that as well.”
Callahan said members of the Vermillion Fire and EMS Department have also stepped up efforts to disinfect department vehicles and the fire station.
“The fire station is a very heavily, publicly used building,” he said. “That’s been restricted; we’ve canceled outside use. We’ve restricted (station use) to just our trainings that we’re doing internally.”
Fire department personnel include a number of college students and department managers are evaluating where they traveled during spring break and also if any of their family members have been ill lately and if the students had traveled home during spring break.
“This is not about panicking; this is about flattening the curve and slowing how fast it (coronavirus) spreads,” Callahan said. “It’s going to spread; it’s going to get worse. The CDC and federal government stated yesterday there are two million test kits that will be available this week. There are 200 private labs that will begin running the testing for this.
“We will see a spike in numbers -- that’s guaranteed, but that will be because we will be testing more people,” he said. “I think that’s important, that we understand and educate the public that a lot of this is all precautionary.”
He noted that it is important for people to not panic while being aware of the facts about coronavirus.
“This is not going to go away in a month, but do we need to panic? No,” Callahan said. “H1N1 had a lot more people who were infected that died, but the problem with coronavirus is it spreads rapidly. It doesn’t spread as fast as H1N1.”
He noted that a vaccine is not readily available for coronavirus. Steps are underway to develop one, but it will take time.
“The H1N1 (vaccine) was just a matter of mutating the flu shot and it was available within six months and we mass-vaccinated 75 percent of the country in three months,” Callahan said. “With coronavirus, it will be 12 to 16 months to have a vaccine available … 60 to 70 percent of the country will end up with coronavirus. Eighty to 85 percent of those people will have mild cold and flu symptoms and probably won’t be tested for it.
“We need to be prepared,” he said, “but we don’t need to panic.”