By SARAH BARNES
CONYERS — Medical staff throughout the east-metro Atlanta area joined forces Tuesday to respond to one of the largest environmental disasters there in more than a decade.
With the mandate of meeting the health needs of the community, area hospitals worked with public health officials, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), the Red Cross and law enforcement, among other groups to treat the thousands of residents exposed to toxic chemicals that were released in a fire at Conyers’ BioLab warehouse.
Starting in the early hours Tuesday morning, Rockdale Medical Center (RMC) was shrouded in a chemical cloud, which required the hospital to lock down from 9 to 11 a.m., shut down its air ventilation system and divert patients to hospitals in Newton, DeKalb, Walton and Henry counties.
After reopening its doors at noon, RMC had treated 14 patients by approximately 5 p.m., six of whom required admission. The hospital also opened its emergency room to the public late Tuesday, but advised patients with minor symptoms to stay home and avoid further exposure, as opposed to visiting the ER.
However, according to spokeswoman Sharon Barbour, Newton General saw a rush of patients Tuesday. The hospital saw 24 patients and admitted 20; the majority of the patients were elderly.
“We think we’ve done a very good job,” RMC spokeswoman Joy Davis said. “We kept our lines of communications open and we were able to stay open and available to the community except for a brief period this morning.”
For updates on the status of RMC, residents can access press releases from the hospital at http://www.rockdalehospital.org. Residents can also contact Newton General at 770-786-7053.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of chemical exposure include mild to severe irritation in the eyes, skin or respiratory passages, as evidenced by coughing, wheezing, itching, burning or similar sensations. Symptoms can emerge 24-48 hours following exposure.
There is no antidote for chemical exposure, so symptoms are treated with supportive measures. These include cleaning affected areas or clothing, avoiding further exposure and treating irritation.
According to Rockdale Medical Center officials, there will be no elective surgery Wednesday, and outpatient surgery has been delayed until after 10 a.m.
Hospitals in Newton, DeKalb, Walton and Gwinnett counties all reported seeing up to 30 patients complaining of respiratory distress throughout the day Tuesday.
In addition to RMC’s efforts, public health and Red Cross personnel served the community at medical outposts Tuesday. The groups set up at the designated shelters of J.H. House Elementary School and Heritage High School to offer displaced residents medical care and support.
Moreover, public health spent considerable time Tuesday treating and supporting the Spanish-speaking population in Conyers, which is largely centered in Lakeview Estates, near the chemical fire.
Local doctors also received a barrage of calls from worried residents Tuesday. Nora Patonay, a physician with Conyers Pediatrics, said her office phone rang off the hook with patients calling concerned about exposure or symptoms.
However, unless patients are facing severe reactions or breathing difficulties that require hospitalization, Patonay said there was little a doctor could do.
“I have really just been recommending people try to get out of the area and get some fresh air,” Patonay said. “Or if they are home, to close their windows and doors and not go outside.”
In addition, Patonay recommends saline drops to soothe irritation in the eyes, as well as other general soothing treatments like cold compresses for the face and skin.
Also, Patonay recommended that adults carefully monitor asthmatics, the elderly or young children, as these groups are at greater risk for serious complications from chemical exposure.
GEMA spokesman Buzz Weiss commended RMC and other local organizations for working together efficiently during the fire. He said that the swift and efficient response of the community was indicative of the amount of time local groups had invested in emergency preparedness.
“RMC and all of the responders have been excellent,” Weiss said. “This is the kind of incident that we plan for throughout the state. This is the real thing, and everything seems to be going the way we hoped in that we have had no deaths or serious injuries.”
For more information about chemical exposure symptoms or treatments go to http://www.cdc.gov. Residents can also contact the local health department at 770-785-5936 or RMC at 770-918- 3000.