As coronavirus cases continued to mount in Barrow County and across all of Georgia on Tuesday, Aug. 11, local health officials urged residents and businesses to be diligent in helping stem the spread of COVID-19.

As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, Barrow County’s cumulative case total stood at 1,323 with 171 new cases being confirmed in the past week and 344 since July 28. And while the seven-day rolling average for the county had dropped from 26.9 cases per day on Friday, Aug. 7, to 24 on Tuesday, the daily number of infections has remained steadily high in recent weeks.

“I hope there will come a time when we don’t have to talk about COVID, but it’s our reality today,” Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow president Chad Hatfield said Tuesday during a Barrow County Chamber of Commerce membership meeting via Zoom, before discussing area case numbers that look much more like April when the virus was at its previous peak. “The drop we saw in May and June, we believe, was the community answering the call. Unfortunately, since a little after the Fourth of July, we’ve seen cases increase rapidly.”

Northeast Georgia Health System officials reported Tuesday morning the system’s four hospitals and other facilities were treating a total of 160 patients positive for COVID-19 and 110 others who were awaiting test results. Four more patient deaths were reported Tuesday across the system — bringing the total to 201 — and 47 deaths have occurred at NGHS facilities in the past two weeks, with Hall County seeing the highest death toll.

There were two positive patients being treated at NGMC Barrow and nine others “under investigation” for COVID-19 on Tuesday, though Hatfield noted those patients in need of critical care have been primarily sent to NGMC Braselton and the system has centralized its critical-care beds between Braselton and Gainesville. In the past week, Hatfield said, 111 patients have been tested for COVID-19 at NGMC Barrow, and 13 returned positive — a mark of 12 percent, slightly above the overall state average of 11 percent.

“We’ve seen a big surge. If you look at the seven-day rolling average in the past few weeks, it’s the highest it’s been since the pandemic started in Barrow,” Hatfield said. “Some of that may be due to increased testing, but remember there are likely still plenty of cases out there that we don’t know about. When you consider Barrow County borders Hall and Gwinnett, which have both been hotspots, it really puts into perspective how seriously we need to take this virus. It’s actually surprising we don’t have a higher rate.”

Barrow’s latest numbers came as the Georgia Department of Public Health released more bleak numbers for the state Tuesday. The DPH reported another 3,639 cases — bringing the cumulative total to 222,588 — and the death toll increased by 137 to 4,351 as the state reported a single-day record for deaths.

“This pandemic is far from over,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, chair of NGMC’s Infection Prevention and Control Committee. “When we started planning for this, we didn’t expect it to last thing long, but this is nothing like we’ve seen in our lifetime.”

During Tuesday’s chamber meeting, Mannepalli continued to stress that people limit their non-essential travel, wear masks, maintain social distancing, practice strong personal hygiene and stay home when sick. She also reiterated that COVID symptoms extend beyond the most common three (fever, cough, shortness of breath).

“We can’t stay shut in forever. We need to move on with our lives, but we need to do that with caution and awareness of how we can help prevent the virus from spreading,” Mannepalli said. “Fall and winter are going to be very different this year, especially with flu season. Every flu-like symptom is a COVID suspicion. Every year, we should be urging people to take the flu vaccine, but this year it’s of the utmost importance.

“It’s hard to predict how things are going to evolve over the next few months, but we just need to continue to be cautious.”

Tuesday’s chamber meeting also included a presentation on best business practices from Luke Lenahan of Northeast Georgia Physicians Group (NGPG) Occupational Medicine on reducing the spread of COVID.

Some of the key highlights included:

•a hazard assessment to determine the most likely sources of exposure for businesses.

•providing training to employees on recognizing signs and symptoms and on prevention measures.

•encouraging and reminding employees of proper hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette as well as proper cleaning and disinfection techniques. Lenahan said businesses should regularly wipe down shared or frequently-touched surfaces and target them for increased cleaning and discourage the sharing of frequently-shared items.

•identifying cases and having a plan in place for quickly isolating employees who become sick or develop symptoms at work.

•determining the right type of mask employees will need for their protection and the public’s protection. While some businesses without as much face-to-face contact could be fine with the cloth masks commonly seen out in public, something more protective like an N-95 mask would be more appropriate for a dentist’s office, for example, Lenahan said.

Lenahan added that businesses should have in place a plan for employees to safely return to work and noted the CDC and DPH are not recommending a test-based return to work. He said businesses in need of assistance can schedule a virtual visit with NGPG Occupational Medicine at 770-219-8275.

Lenahan said business optics these days are also important, pointing to a recent photo of a crowded hallway at North Paulding High School that received widespread national media coverage.

“If you were somebody planning to go into a facility and you saw a photo like that on the news, would you feel comfortable going there,” Lenahan asked rhetorically. “Do you want to go to a surgeon, an accountant, a lawyer, whose office is just doing the bare minimum, or one who’s going above and beyond to do everything they can (to keep employees and the public safe).”

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