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Response plan assumes the worst so county can be at its best

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SMITHFIELD — Johnston County government has plans for how to respond to a host of emergencies — adverse weather, of course, but also terrorism, chemical spills, suspicious envelopes and packages.

Also on the response list: pandemics.

That response plan, currently under revision because of the coronavirus, makes a number of assumptions about a pandemic. It assumes, for example, that an outbreak will push the county to it limits because it will affect all of Johnston.

“A situation of this type will heavily tax all public safety ... and medical agencies within the county,” the plan states.

And in the event of an outbreak, the plan assumes that county leaders will defer to the experts. The “Johnston County Public Health Department is the leading authority and the legal responsible entity for information and direction in the event of a public health outbreak,” the plan says.

That has certainly been the case with the coronavirus. The health department, under the direction of Dr. Marilyn Pearson, is conducting testing, monitoring people who might have been exposed to the virus and briefing county leaders on the virus.

The county’s pandemic-response plan has also proven prescient, saying the affects of an outbreak “can be diminished by limiting gatherings.” Gov. Roy Cooper has shuttered schools, closed bars and restaurants to dine-in customers, and he has told North Carolinians not to attend gatherings of more than 50 people.

So far, the plan’s worst-case assumptions haven’t come to pass. It assumes, for example, that “a large portion of public services and private medical personnel will be unavailable to report for duty due to impact on themselves and their families.” The plan also assumes such personnel “may be unwilling to report for duty due to fear of infection,” which would “place further constraints on response capability.”

The plan assumes too that other North Carolina counties will be unable or unwilling to come to Johnston’s rescue. “Mutual aid from surrounding jurisdictions may be unavailable to respond due to impact within their own jurisdiction,” the plan says, and “mutual aid from non-impacted areas of the state or outside the state may be unwilling to respond for fear of infection.”

Finally, the plan assumes that grocery stores and other retailers maybe be slow or unable to fill shelves with staples because their employees are sick. And the plan fears that an outbreak could affect electricity and water distribution along with government services.

So what’s a county to do?

Already, Johnston has taken a number of steps in its response plan.

County Commissioners Chairman Ted Godwin has declared a state of emergency in Johnston. Among other things, the declaration speeds up assistance from the state and federal governments if needed. Also, the declaration puts the county in emergency-operations mode, much like it would be in a hurricane, and it prohibits price gouging, with each offense punishable by 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Beyond the declaration, the county has made Pearson, the health department director, the point person in Johnston’s response, and her agency has taken the lead in Johnston’s efforts. Also, Johnston has opened its Emergency Operations Center, which it routinely does in the event of a hurricane, and it is encouraging Johnstonians to business with the county online in an effort to combat spread of the virus.