ATLANTA - He spent a career in Georgia state government preparing for a pandemic that, as it turned out, would happen only after he retired.
As far back as 2007, Dr. Pat O'Neal held hearings across the state warning about how a pandemic was certain to happen. (Georgia Department of Public Health)
Instead, former Public Health Commissioner Dr. Pat O’Neal has watched the events unfold as just another Georgia resident, a resident with similar concerns about what’s happening right now.
“We talk in this country so much about individual rights,” O'Neal said. “But when we have disease, those germs don’t just reside in the person who allows themselves to catch them. They spread to others.”
If O’Neal still had his old job, he’d be the one standing off to the side of Gov. Brian Kemp during those solemn news conferences. Dr. Kathleen Toomey replaced O’Neal as Georgia’s top public health leader. O’Neal officially retired in April of 2019.
Before that, the former DeKalb Medical Center ER doctor traveled the state warning about a pandemic he said was certain to happen one day.
“There’s nothing in our technology now that’s going to keep us from having another pandemic,” O’Neal cautioned a group September 14, 2007, a video recording of the meeting is still online. His comments sound prescient today.
“When the pandemic strikes,” he said then, “we don’t know that anti-virals are going to be effective because we don’t yet know what the virus is going to look like that becomes a pandemic.”
Now that the pandemic is here, O’Neal declined to second-guess his successor and decisions made to reopen Georgia businesses. However…
“I do feel like we did not lock down early enough,” he said.
A slide from one of many Dr. O'Neal presentations warning Georgia residents and businesses about a pandemic.
Under O’Neal’s watch the state produced instructional videos in 2011 targeting families, pushing advice certainly familiar to all of us in 2020.
Wash your hands constantly. Don’t touch your face. Social distancing.
If he still had his old job, would he recommend to the governor that everyone wear a mask when they leave their house?
“My recommendation would be that people have it with them and as soon as they come in contact with others, that then they go ahead and apply the mask,” he explained. “As a community, I think we need to protect each other, not just ourselves.”
Dr. O’Neal worries about an expected resurgence of cases and hopes the medical system can now handle what’s coming its way.
But he regrets the one part of his pandemic plan he could never get finished, could never get agreement among all the stakeholders: when there’s not enough medical resources to go around — who gets first dibs?
“With a severe pandemic, we anticipated that there would be a situation in many areas where there would not be enough medical equipment to handle all the sick people,” he said. “Without that one piece, I didn’t feel that the pandemic plan for Georgia was nearly as good as it could have been.”
Hopefully, that’s the one piece Georgia won’t need for this pandemic.