While medical professionals and first responders battle the COVID-19 on the front lines, there are two men taking up the fight behind the scenes in the Joint Emergency Operation Center central command post coordinating manpower and supply needs, while also fielding calls from citizens in response to the crisis.
Kerrville Fire Department Division Chief Jerremy Hughes and Kerr County Emergency Management Coordinator Dub Thomas have been participating in the planning and organizing of the local response COVID-19 since January, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
The Joint Operation Center was formally activated on March 17 at a joint press conference with City of Kerrville, Kerr County, Peterson Health, Kerrville Independent School District and Schreiner University Offiicals in attendance as Mayor Bill Blackburn declared a “State of Emergency."
“During a flood, tornado or a fire, this room would be filled with first responders manning different stations and coordinating the response to that incident,” Hughes said. “This is very different, in that we can’t have a bunch of people in the same room because of the virus.”
As the emergency response nucleus, Hughes and Thomas serve as liaisons to the “boots on the ground” during any crisis and this one is proving to be very challenging.
“He (Thomas) can come to me to get resources or I can go to him to get county resources,” Hughes said. “Or, we can go to the state for rescources we do not have locally, but in this situation, COVID-19 is affecting the entire state, so it’s hard to get those resources and we are working within our own entities.”
As part of the JEOC effort, Hughes and Thomas coordinated an effort between KFD and the Kerr County Sheriff’s office to help train officers how to be safe while on patrol and provided the same training and Personal Protection Equipment to the Ingram Police Department.
“We also gave the SO CaviCide, the chemical we use to clean the back of our ambulances, so that they could clean their patrol cars and make sure they are safe,” Hughes said. “The sheriff’s office had N95 masks and we have CaviCide for cleaning, so together we were able to supply Ingram PD with these items to protect themselves. That’s what emergency management is about.”
Thomas said the goal of the Joint Emergency Operation Center is to anticipate the needs of those fighting the battle.
“We are responsible for finding those resource needs as well as financial tracking, logistics, operations and planning,” Thomas said.
Hughes said every dollar spent in the local fight against COVID-19 is being tracked … supplies, overtime and “whatever we have to pay for that is associated with this fight.”
“We keep track of those dollars, because when this is over, we will get reimbursed by the state,” Hughes said.
Thomas said the JEOC also provides a call center for citizens.
“While the hospital has their own hotline, we are also fielding calls for the City of Kerrville, Kerr County and Peterson Regional Medical Center as well,” Thomas said. “We will have the answers they need or will find the answer for them.”
Hughes said they track every single call received at the call center, noting that volumes vary.
“One thing we’ve noticed is that every time something changes on the national level, the calls locally increase,” Hughes said. “We answer every question that comes in the call center. If we don’t know the answer right at that moment, we will call back once we have the information they are seeking.”
Hughes said the most-asked questions coming into the call center are in regard to testing for COVID-19.
“Every community does not have a ‘testing kit’,” Hughes said. “We have specimen collection kits for screening and the labs do the testing.”
Hughes said the Kerr County community has plenty of specimen collection kits at the hospital, local doctors’ offices and the newly opened Peterson Health Mobile Screening Clinic. Locally a total of 100 screenings (specimen collections) have been conducted. A total of 84 tests have come back negative and results are pending on 14. Kerr County now has two positive COVID-19 test results from local citizens, both of which were attributed to travel outside of the county and not community-spread.
“We want to stop rumors and we encourage everyone to call us if they hear something and aren’t sure,” Hughes said. “The call center number is 258-1111.”
Hughes said the public should know that the JEOC is not one agency’s operation.
“It is the city, the county and the hospital,” Hughes said. “We’re all in it together. As information comes in, we immediately inform the community.”
The City of Kerrville and Kerr County officials recognized Governor Greg Abbott’s “Stay At Home” order, mandating that all citizens stay home and only venture out to receive or provide defined essential services.
Both Hughes and Thomas urged citizens to remain at home and practice social distancing to help stop the spread of COVID-19, but most of all want to reiterate that Kerr County is well-prepared for the fight against the new coronavirus.