County officials discuss why they won’t share any more info on local COVID-19 cases

by Cristin Parker

Cherokee County’s Commissioners Court caught the wave of the future during its regular meeting held Tuesday, April 14.

The meeting was livestreamed on YouTube in accordance with the county and state social distancing mandate, set in place last month to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). The entire Court was present, though Commissioners Patrick Reagan and Kelly Traylor sat in the seats on the left and right sides the judge’s podium rather than at the table, as social distancing warranted.

Commissioners received updates on the state of the county during the COVID-19 pandemic from County Emergency Management Coordinator Sergio Servin and Cherokee County Public Health Department (CCPHD) Director Grace Mikhail.

“We currently have three cases under the supervision of the Public Health Department,” Servin told commissioners Tuesday morning. “The good news is of the nine cases that have been confirmed in Cherokee County, five have recovered.” Mikhail added, “All three of the cases we’re supervising are self-quarantined at home and are recovering.”

Both officials agreed the majority of Cherokee County individuals and businesses seem to have stepped up and are making the effort to observe the state’s stay-at-home mandate. One commissioner asked for a little more clarification on the state’s rule, and what’s the difference between a stay-at-home order and a shelter-in-place order. Servin explained a shelter-in-place order means stay exactly where you are, even if you’re not at home.

“Stay at home means just that -- stay at home as much as possible,” Servin said. “You can still go to Wal-Mart when you need to but taking the whole family is a no-no. Just send one person.

“The whole concept of this stay-at-home order is to keep as much traffic off the streets as possible, to avoid contact with other people.

“Counties have the authority to go beyond what the state has recommended. We don’t feel it’s necessary to do that, at this time. Just stay home whenever possible and help keep our numbers low.”

Servin also re-addressed the county’s policy on not making specific locations of COVID-19 cases public knowledge.

“We’ve discussed releasing city information on cases,” he said. “At this point we’ve decided to stick with what we’ve been doing.”

Cherokee County Judge Chris Davis added, “I think our communities and our businesses have gone above and beyond -- keeping people separated, placing shields up for their employees and all that sort of thing. And I think most people are trying to do right. People are scared, upset, want this to go away and maybe want someone to blame – that’s understandable.

“But the fact of the matter is our communities are so small and close-knit that if any more information is released on these cases, these people can be found out and targeted within a matter of minutes.

“We’re trying to treat everyone fairly through this whole thing. All the emergency department officials in the areas where cases are confirmed are being notified. The health department continues to contact people who may have come into contact with a confirmed case.”

In related business, commissioners unanimously approved an interlocal cooperation contract with the Department of State Health Services and the CCPHD in support of COVID-19 response.

Mikhail reported the county had received a $123,00 grant to help cover costs incurred due to the pandemic. Mikhail said her department would most likely use the funds for salaries.

Court members also unanimously approved an addendum to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), as requested by Cherokee County Human Resource Director Cara Kettrick“Congress introduced a bill recently allowing us to exclude certain people from their new (stay-at-home) regulations,” Kettrick said. “All emergency responders have been excluded.”

Kettrick reported one stipulation the new bill added was personnel with children ages 18 and under can be allowed to remain home at 2/3 their regular salaries.

“Right now we’re dealing with this on a case-by-case basis,” Kettrick said. “It’s a multifaceted situation where we all have some responsibility, but we felt like this is something that can help us protect our employees and their families.”

One commissioner expressed concern that the bill specifically allows children up to 18 years of age and said, “we don’t want to be paying them to stay at home when they’ve only got a 17-year-old at home.”

Davis answered, “I feel like our employees are dedicated enough that they can make that determination on their own.”

Other items commissioners unanimously approved during Tuesday’s meeting included:

• the Sheriff’s report:

• granting an exemption to the competitive bid process and authorizing the purchase of a generator for the jail;

• adding Juvenile Services to the juror pay donation request form;

• filing an application for the County Transportation Infrastructure Funds program for a minimum of $320,903 in grant funds; and

• the consent agenda, which consisted of the minutes of prior meetings, reports from the County Auditor and Treasurer and payment of bills and payroll.

The cities of Jacksonville and Rusk also planned to hold their regular April meetings via conference call and live video stream. The city of Jacksonville’s regular council meeting was held Tuesday, April 14. The city of Rusk will hold its regular council meeting at noon, Thursday, April 16.