Baldwin County Emergency Management/U.S. Homeland Security Agency Director Wayne Johnson is seen in the YCA facility, which is being prepped for state use if a second wave of COVID-19 breaks out.

The building that has housed the Milledgeville Youth Challenge Academy since 2016 will soon become a “mini hospital” for patients recovering from COVID-19, The Union-Recorder has learned.

Personnel at the Youth Challenge Academy recently learned the facility will likely close amid major budget cuts within the state’s criminal justice system and public safety agencies. The YCA campus is one of the three such facilities operated by the Georgia National Guard to help at-risk young people.

The Georgia Department of Defense is expected to realize a large portion of its 14 percent cut by closing the local YCA facility, which had been plagued with staffing problems and the state’s lowest graduation rate, Adjunct General Thomas Carden told state lawmakers recently.

The closing of the Milledgeville YCA facility will directly impact 54 full-time and two part-time state employees. At the same time, it would create a savings of $1.4 million.

While teachers and administrators are in the process of moving out of the building, inmates from one of the local state prisons are involved in painting and readying the building for a new group of people — those hospitalized with COVID-19 and in-turn require a facility where they can recuperate for several days.

Mark Sexton, deputy director with the Georgia Emergency Management/U.S. Homeland Security Agency, confirmed Thursday afternoon that the YCA building is being converted into what he described as an alternate care facility or mini-hospital.

The day before, Baldwin County Commission Chairman Henry R. Craig said he had been made aware of what was taking place by Baldwin County Emergency Management/U.S. Homeland Security Agency Director Wayne Johnson.

“This hospital-like facility potentially might be used if COVID patients, especially in the category of those who are institutionalized in congregate settings,” Craig said. “In most congregate setting rules, you have to pass two COVID tests before you can move from one place to another. This will potentially give the state a place to move those kinds of patients until they have two COVID tests or if there is no other place to put them.”

Craig said as explained to him, this is a potential facility in the event it is needed.

“It is not something they are doing right away,” Craig said. “It is based on what might happen in the future.”

Craig said even though he was pleased that the site could potentially help patients recover from COVID-19, he was still saddened about the loss of jobs with the closing of the Youth Challenge Academy.

“I’m very sad that we’re losing these jobs, very sorry about it because that it is a very significant loss to our community,” Craig said. “I’m pleased they found a way to repurpose the building and keep it in a situation where we can continue to maintain the building. This is a good repurposing of the building.”

Craig said when and if patients recovering from COVID-19 are moved to the facility in Milledgeville that he was certain those involved would follow appropriate medical procedures to ensure that the community remains safe.

“And remember, Milledgeville and Baldwin County have taken care of sick people in Georgia for 170 years,” Craig said. “Some communities have been doing that for a much shorter period of time, but we’ve been doing this for a long time. If the building becomes needed, based on the experiences that the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Georgia Emergency Management/U.S. Homeland Security Agency now have about the COVID situation that they will ensure this facility and the care of patients there is done in a very safe and efficient manner for everyone involved.”

In a telephone interview with the newspaper, Sexton said Georgia Emergency Management/U.S. Homeland Security Agency is taking steps in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the onset of the pandemic, Sexton said the World Congress Center in Atlanta was set up with 200 beds to help patients after they were released from hospitals.

“We’re now in the process of moving those beds and other equipment out of the World Congress Center so they can get back to normal operations,” Sexton said. “We’re going to put some of it in a warehouse down at the Georgia Public Training Center in Forsyth, and some of it will be coming to the Youth Challenge Academy building in Milledgeville.”

Sexton said the physical footprint of the building provides the state agency with the capability of moving 80 hospital beds and medical equipment to the site.

“It will effectively become a mini hospital on standby, basically,” Sexton said.

He explained that the building was currently being transformed from a classroom setting to a medical facility, which would not immediately include a medical staff.

“We’re mainly taking the equipment down there and setting it back up,” Sexton said. “We’re going to take the education hallway and classrooms and put some wall structures in there to kind of create semi-private rooms for folks. The larger classrooms will have seven beds in them, and then on the other side of the hallway, we’re probably going to have three or four beds in each room.”

Sexton said the primary mission for moving 80 of the 200 beds from the World Congress Center to Milledgeville was all about being prepared in the event of a spike in COVID-19 cases later this year.

“One of the issues with COVID-19 patients is the long recovery time once they get past being critically ill,” Sexton said. “Once they start improving, it’s generally about a 10 to 14-day timeframe before the patients are well enough to go back to their homes.”

He said what was done in Atlanta would probably be the same thing done in Milledgeville.

“After some of those patients who have been released from hospitals, but who yet still need some level of medical care, it would be those types of patients that we would move in there to receive low-level medical care until they were ready to leave and go home,” Sexton said. “They would still be COVID patients, but no longer critically ill at that point.”

Sexton said this type of process would allow hospitals to free up bed space should the need arise down the road.

In earlier periods of the pandemic, part of the space issue at hospitals was that patients were staying ill for such an extended amount of time, he pointed out.

“They simply weren’t able to clear them out of the hospitals at the backend of their time, so this will be a type of relief facility where hospitals could choose to send patients and free-up space for their more ill patients,” Sexton said.

Sexton said another reason for setting up the mini type hospital in Milledgeville was because it is centrally located in the state.

“This facility will be able to easily serve folks all the way down to the coastal area of Brunswick or the Dublin-Laurens area, Augusta area and Macon area as well,” Sexton said. 

The deputy director said this is one project that he hopes doesn’t have to be used, but that if it is needed it will be ready.

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