DECATUR, Ga. — When Dr. Nancy Messonnier warned the nation in late February that the spread of coronavirus was "inevitable," her words and tone demanded attention.
She was every mom and she was serious.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Disease told reporters she contacted her kids' school superintendent in this Atlanta suburb about safety measures and urged others to take similar action.
"I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning and I told my children that while I didn’t think that they were at risk right now, we as a family need to be preparing for significant disruption of our lives," Messonnier said during the Feb. 25 press briefing. "You should ask your children’s school about their plans for school dismissals or school closures."
As coronavirus cases spread throughout the U.S., Decatur residents and local officials take comfort in knowing their town is home to many Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, including Messonnier, who are working around the clock to fight the deadly disease.
Despite criticism of the agency for its slow roll out of testing for the virus and sometimes conflicting information from President Donald Trump and members of his administration, the city believes in their hometown medical experts.
Decatur, a progressive town of about 19,000 people, is just 2 miles from the CDC headquarters in northeast Atlanta.
The city boasts a mix of urban and suburban neighborhoods and is known for its family-friendly events, charming downtown and science-savvy residents.
“You can’t throw a rock without hitting a Ph.D. around here,” said Dan Whisenhunt, editor and publisher of the online news site Decaturish. “They're the smartest people you ever met in your life."
DeKalb County school board member and therapist Joyce Morley feels safer going to church and helping run schools that are full of CDC officials and parents.
“When they (CDC) have their press conference, they’re not playing,” Morley said. “They’re never going to falsely lead us and their local and state government.”
Infectious conversations, everywhere
Christa Sobon, a program manager for Cox Automotive, said during the Ebola epidemic, she'd see one parent dropping off his children and then on TV a short time later.
"To me, regardless of the administration, I don’t believe many politicians," said Sobon, who has 10- and 12-year-old daughters in City Schools of Decatur. "I’m going to be more inclined to believe the scientists who have dedicated their careers to infectious disease."
Last week, patrons at the Starbucks in downtown Decatur said they were relieved to see a sign at the front counter stating the coffee shop was temporarily stopping the use of reusable cups to prevent coronavirus. A timer behind the counter also beeped every 30 minutes to remind employees to wash their hands.
Alaska Matthews said such practices and living where they do help calm their fears. Matthews said they have a handful of friends in the community who work for the CDC and don't appear to be "overly concerned."
“It isn’t at the point where they feel we need to be freaking out about it," Matthews said. "I feel that I would definitely be able to find out quickly if there were any distressing changes in the state of the coronavirus.”
Jessica Barfield, a waitress at Leon's Full Service in downtown Decatur, said she feels confident word of any warnings from the nearby CDC would spread fast in the community.
“Whatever procedures they lay out, like it would probably happen more quickly with us being closer," Barfield said.
Whisenhunt says there was no CDC halo effect apparent the weekend of March 1, when the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency website was free of any mention of coronavirus until he pointed it out to them. The same level of confusion appeared to be plaguing departments across the U.S.
First, the city of Decatur said DeKalb County's Emergency Management Agency was coordinating the response to the virus. Then, the DeKalb County Board of Health declared they were, said Whisenhunt.
Eric Nickens, spokesman for the health board, said it was a misunderstanding and not a turf battle.
Whisenhunt understands the reaction to “wait to see if it’s really going to be a thing" and engage in it then, but wishes there was more of a clear benefit to CDC’s presence.
CDC is down the street and "we’re out here with our pants around our ankles trying to figure out what to do," Whisenhunt said.
Meanwhile, there are 17 confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia including an employee at the neighboring Fulton County Schools, which will be closed Tuesday for cleaning.
Still, City Schools of Decatur have not taken any drastic measures.
Superintendent David Dude said in an email to USA TODAY that he wasn't immediately expecting school closures. But, like most of the country, school administrators were developing a plan in case students have to complete class work at home, he said.
If schools close, Sobon said she feels confident knowing she can count on CDC parents for advice when needed.
"You don't know them in their professional capacity. You know them on the lacrosse field, you know them as a neighbor and as a fellow parent," she said. "It's almost surreal."
Mom at the mic
Dude confirmed Messonnier emailed him Feb. 25 asking how the district planned to address the threat of coronavirus.
"She has a great deal of expertise in this area and has offered her support in this and future planning we undertake in this area," Dude said, noting he expects she will be an "ally moving forward."
Former CDC director Thomas Frieden said the coronavirus fight couldn't be in better hands.
Messonnier first joined the CDC in 1995 and has held a number of leadership posts at the agency, including deputy director of the infectious and respiratory center from 2014-2016, and leading the Meningitis and Vaccine Preventable Diseases Branch in the center's Division of Bacterial Diseases from 2007 to 2012.
Frieden described Messonnier as level-headed, caring and reliable. He said she has ably delivered the CDC's responses to bacterial meningitis and anthrax in previous years.
“She has had to deal with very difficult situations in the past and she has dealt with them well,” said Frieden, who was director from 2009-2017. "All of us are learning, but the experience that she has has prepared her extremely well for this challenge.”
Ellis reported from Decatur and O'Donnell reported from McLean, Virginia.