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News
Coronavirus pandemic's effects impact Barrow

The first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in Barrow County has been listed by the Georgia Department of Public Health, though that person has been living in an assisted living facility in another county, according to a Barrow County Emergency Services news release.

“This is the first case listed by the Department of Public Health in Barrow County, but we are confident more positive tests are coming,” said Barrow County emergency management director Penny Clack. “This does not change how we are responding at this time and we want to remind citizens to continue following CDC and Georgia Department of Public Health recommendations to combat the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).”

The state had 146 confirmed cases of the virus as of noon Tuesday, March 17. Only one person has died so far from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, according to the state’s data. The Department of Public Health updates its online county-by-county tracker each day.

There were more than 6,200 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. and the death toll had surpassed 100 as of Wednesday morning.

The effects of the worldwide pandemic have been felt locally as well, with school and various office closures and a handful of other event cancellations and postponements aimed at combating the spread of the virus.

The CDC has recommended that public gatherings be limited to 10 people.

Gov. Brian Kemp ordered on Monday, March 16, that all public schools in the state be closed through the end of the month. And the state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, said during a live interview on Georgia Public Broadcasting that the state is in the process of identifying supply sources to address medical and personal protective equipment shortages.

Most public meetings of local governmental bodies were still planned as scheduled as of press time, though there were some modifications to procedures at local government facilities.

A continuing wave of closure and cancellation announcements started late in the afternoon and early in the evening Thursday, March 12. Earlier in the day, the top official at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow told the Rotary Club of Winder to be prepared for the virus to hit the county.

“It will be here,” hospital president Chad Hatfield told the Rotary Club of Winder during its meeting Thursday at the hospital. “Don’t think that Barrow is going to be immune to it. We will see cases here, and we will have to deal with it. But it’s something we can deal with and treat.”

Hatfield said the hospital and the Northeast Georgia Health System have been prepping for the virus, which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, for the past month. The health system confirmed last week two patients screened at NGMC Braselton had tested positive for the virus and were being screened.

“This is new to everybody so information changes daily, if not more often than that,” Hatfield said. “Sometimes we may push information out that, the next day, may sound (outdated). I know it may be frustrating to some, but please be patient with us as an organization and as a health care industry.”

Hatfield also stressed, at the Rotary meeting, practicing diligent personal hygiene.

“As of right now, we don’t know who has (the virus) and who doesn’t,” he said. “It’s got a two-week incubation period so some of us could be carrying it. Do we shake hands, do we hug like we normally do? I would advise against that. We’re just trying to break that chain of the disease spreading.

“Wash your hands; don’t put your hands all over your face, mouth and eyes. If you practice those things, you’re going to be alright.

“I’m not trying to instill panic. It’s not a death sentence. This is just something we’re going to have to be prepared for and deal with.”

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

President Donald Trump on Friday afternoon, March 13, declared a national state of emergency by invoking the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assisting Act, according to multiple national media outlets — a move that will open up some $50 billion to combat the spread of COVID-19 and provide additional financial assistance and resources in the response efforts.

“This opens up the possibility of (local governments) recouping some of the money we may spend that’s directly related to combating this,” Clack said Friday morning during an emergency-called Winder City Council meeting to discuss the virus and response preparations.

Late Friday afternoon, Kemp followed suit, declaring a public health emergency in the state and calling for an emergency session of the General Assembly, which convened Monday morning, March 16. The state legislature had decided to suspend its regular session on Thursday. 

Kemp said it's the state's first known public health emergency declaration. 

"This declaration will greatly assist health and emergency management officials across Georgia by deploying all available resources for the mitigation and treatment of COVID-19," Kemp said. "At this time, it is appropriate for faith-based organizations and similar entities to consider cancellation of public events and services," Kemp said. Contact your local public health office or consult official sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health, for helpful guidance on decision-making. Elderly citizens and those with chronic, underlying health conditions face a serious threat to their health, and we must do everything in our power to reduce risk associated with this virus.

"Continue to support one another, be mindful of potential exposure, use best practices to prevent infection, and pray for your fellow Americans in the weeks ahead."

Winder mayor David Maynard called the emergency city council meeting Friday to hear from city department heads and receive presentations related to the virus from county emergency response officials.

Susan Kristal, the nurse manager for the Barrow County Health Department, said the county is following its pandemic preparedness plan, which has six stages.

“We’re in stage 5 right now, which is planning to isolate any cases, closing schools, and encouraging governments and businesses to implement emergency staffing plans,” Kristal said. “Stage 6 would be to consider suspending government meetings or functions not related to (pandemic) response efforts.”

EFFORTS TO STOP THE SPREAD

At Friday’s council meeting, Kristal and other officials repeatedly stressed that the main goal is to keep the virus from spreading. They urged citizens to listen to agencies like the CDC, DPH and the county health department and to follow recommended guidelines and procedures.

Washing hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, keeping hand sanitizers at work stations and cleaning commonly-used surfaces are advised.

“In a time like this when this is kind of unprecedented, we’re having to change on a daily basis to adapt to the information we’re given because things can change fast,” Kristal said. “You don’t want to be blind to what’s happening around you. We want to be proactive.

“Some of these measures may seem a bit extreme; however, we all individually need to be intentional about social distancing. Staying at least six feet apart from each other is what’s being recommended. What we know from the data we already have is that in the places that has taken place, it has slowed (the spread of the virus).”

The virus has an incubation period of two to 14 days with an average time of about five days after exposure before any symptoms appear, Clack said. Common symptoms are a fever (especially one sustained after taking medication), dry cough, shortness of breath and, in very severe cases, pneumonia in both lungs, which can be fatal. Eighty percent of patients are reported to have “mild” symptoms.

The people most at risk are elderly people with underlying medical conditions — upper respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, etc., Clack said. Children are generally resilient to the virus, but they can be vectors for transmitting it to grandparents and other people who may not be as resilient, she said.

Kristal said the virus is tending to linger in people for an average of 14-20 days and that it’s important for people to get isolated and treated to be able to tell how contagious they may be after they start to feel better.

Kristal said the county health department does not have testing kits locally and asks for people who experience symptoms to stay in their car upon arriving and department personnel will meet them there.

Barrow County Emergency Services Chief Alan Shuman said the line of supply for masks and gloves is short right now but that he believes “we’ll see the chain loosen up over time.”

That was still a concern, though, Tuesday, as the state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, said during a live interview on Georgia Public Broadcasting that the state is in the process of identifying supply sources to address medical and personal protective equipment shortages.

Shuman said extra precautions are in place for BCES, including limiting the number of personnel who respond on calls to suspected cases of the virus. The department also is in coordination with Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow on procedures for transporting those patients to the hospital, Shuman said.

Shuman and BCES public information officer Scott Dakin added that the general rule of thumb for calling 911 for medical reasons remains: Don’t call unless you feel like you are having a true medical emergency.

In many cases, patients that develop COVID-19 are able to treat themselves at home and do not need to call 911, BCES leaders said in a news release Tuesday.

"If you believe you have been exposed to COVID-19, and develop a fever and symptoms such as a cough and difficulty breathing, you should first contact your healthcare provider for medical advice," the release said. "If the symptoms continue to be mild, the CDC recommends that you stay at home except to get medical care. Separate yourself from other people and animals in your home when possible. If you must come in contact with others, limit that contact as much as possible.

"While you are sick it is recommended that you wear a mask when you are around other people, or when you are caring for people that are sick. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough and throw the tissue away. Then wash your hands immediately.

"Do not share household items such as plates and cups. Wash thoroughly after using them with soap and water. Clean all 'high touch' stuff such as countertops and tables daily. This can be done by following instructions on normal household cleaning products."

People are asked to call ahead before they visit their health care provider and let them know that they have, or may have COVID-19 and see what precautions they need to follow in order to avoid spreading the virus to others that may be there.

"The CDC also asks that you have your health care provider contact the local public health department and let them know, even if you are self-isolating at your home," the release said. "They also advise to stay in contact with your health care provider for medical advice and set an appointment with them if the symptoms get worse or continue.

"Please call 911 if the patient has difficulty breathing/choking, is experiencing an allergic reaction, or has symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. Also if the patient is confused, disoriented, or dizzy, has difficulty walking, speaking or seeing, and if they have sudden severe pain. The CDC also recommends that you do not call 911 if you want information of COVID-19, need a ride to the doctor’s office, want to get tested or have mild symptoms."

“As we have been saying for the last week,” Clack said, “let’s all stay calm and work together as we go through this event.”


News
Several events, meetings canceled, postponed; government office procedures modified

The coronavirus pandemic has led several government offices to either close to the public or modify their procedures, while numerous events and public meetings and gatherings have either been canceled, postponed or had alternative public input measures put in place.

Here are several that have been reported to the Barrow News-Journal.

BARROW COUNTY

Barrow County manager Mike Renshaw and leisure services director Dan Magee said the county would be suspending all senior programming at the Barrow County Senior Citizens Center for two weeks, effective Monday, March 16. Magee said while the building itself will be closed, staff will provide shelf-stable meals upon request to any county resident who is 60 years and older. The center’s phone number is 770-307-3025.

Meanwhile, senior center staff will continue to deliver Meals on Wheels to homebound members and check on their welfare during deliveries, Renshaw said.

“We are also going to assist our senior clients, as staffing allows, with individual trips to the pharmacy and doctor’s office,” Magee said. “We are also referring seniors with special and additional needs to the Northeast Georgia Area Agency on Aging at 706-583-2546. The AAA offers a number of services specific to seniors which county senior centers in the region do not have the resources to provide.”

The county has also suspended all youth and adult sports programing at county parks and recreation facilities until further notice “in order to minimize exposure within large groups,” Renshaw said.

At county offices, the county’s human resources department has developed administrative procedures that will allow all non-essential staff to utilize paid time off in order to stay at home if they become ill; staff without sufficient PTO remaining would also be allowed to accept donated time from others, if necessary, under a temporary policy, Renshaw said.

Renshaw said the county’s custodial crews are treating hard surfaces with a water/bleach mix at all county buildings as recommended by the county health department. 

The Barrow County Board of Commissioners postponed its annual planning retreat that was scheduled for Friday, March 20. Renshaw said the tentative plan is to hold the retreat in late April or early May. The board also has canceled its Tuesday, March 24 work session and will have only one voting meeting on the second Tuesday of each month until further notice. The next meeting is scheduled for April 14. 

Sheriff Jud Smith said the county detention center is limiting the public to the main lobby and has suspended all inmate visitation. Inmates who are brought in are also undergoing screening for potential virus symptoms.

The Barrow County Magistrate Court Office will be open to the public but will only process paperwork for essential services, including search and arrest warrants, initial appearances and bond reviews, amid Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton’s declaration of a Statewide Judicial Emergency.

“No civil filings will be accepted nor, after speaking with the sheriff, will any civil paperwork be served,” Chief Magistrate Caroline Power Evans said. “Therefore, the essential filings for Magistrate Court can be handled through electronic means for warrants and our normal bond/first appearance schedule at the detention center.”

Evans said court will still be held for dispossessory hearings that were already scheduled for March 19 and 26 “because I believe that landlord/tenant matters, even though they are civil, are time sensitive and crucial."

Evans initially announced the office would be closed to the public but said late Monday afternoon she had reconsidered her decision.

Also, Probate Judge Tammy Brown's office said in a statement that applications and renewals for weapons-carry licenses will be temporarily suspended, and people can still be granted renewals 30 days after the renewal deadline listed on their licenses.

CITY OF WINDER

All City of Winder facilities are closed to public walk-ins until further notice. Those facilities include City Hall, the Customer Center, Fire Department, Planning Department, Police Department, and Utilities Complex. City services will be available online, by phone, and through limited in-person appointments, according to a news release.

•City Hall: For general information, go to www.cityofwinder.com. If you have any questions, call 770-867-3106 or email city.hall@cityofwinder.com.

•Customer Center: For City of Winder bills, customers can still submit payment in the drop box behind the Customer Center, by phone at 1-855-498-9974, or online at www.cityofwinder.com. If you have any questions, call 770-867-3106 or email customer.service@cityofwinder.com.

•Fire: For emergencies, call 911. For non-emergency questions, call 770-867-3212 or email matt.whiting@cityofwinder.com.

•Planning: If you have any questions, call 770-867-3510 or email barry.edgar@cityofwinder.com, yvonne.greenway@cityofwinder.com, and/or lydia.skeppstrom@cityofwinder.com.

•Police: For emergencies, call 911. For non-emergency questions, call 770-867-2156 or email rita.riner@cityofwinder.com and theresa.kraus@cityofwinder.com. You may continue to pay citations online at www.cityofwinder.com or in the drop box behind the Customer Center. The Winder Police Department will not be conducting walk-in background checks during this time.

•Utilities: Call 770-867-7978 or email roger.wilhelm@cityofwinder.com.

At the city-operated Chimneys Golf Course, tee times have been reduced and each individual will be provided their own cart at no additional cost.

The Winder City Council was scheduled as of press time to meet for a work session and called meeting to discuss and potentially vote on the zoning ordinance update on Thursday, March 19, at 6 p.m. in the Winder Police Department Training Room.

The meeting will be open to the public under Georgia law, but anyone who wishes to provide comments virtually may email their comments to city.hall@cityofwinder.com in advance of the meeting by noon on Thursday, March 19.

"We apologize for the inconvenience, but protecting the health and well-being of our citizens and staff is a priority," city officials said. "Protecting our citizens and staff will enable the city to continue providing services while limiting face-to-face interaction to help slow the spread of COVID-19."

OTHER MUNICIPALITIES

•The City of Statham announced city hall is open but city accountant April Plank urged people to practice “social distancing” and come inside only if they need assistance. Plank said utility payments can be made by calling 770-725-5455 and pressing “2” between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. only; online at www.cityofstatham.com; or by placing payments in the drop box outside city hall. The city is also not accepting any applications for community center rentals until further notice. The city council held its regularly-scheduled meeting Tuesday night.

•The City of Auburn postponed a future downtown planning initiative kickoff meeting that was to be held Thursday, March 19, at the Perry Rainey Center until a later date to be determined. A city council work session scheduled for Thursday was also postponed until April 2 at 5 p.m., prior to the council’s voting session that same day. The city has closed its recreational and rental facilities until further notice. While city hall remained open as of press time, the city does encourage people paying bills to consider utilizing a drop box available in front of the building rather than making in-person payments. People with other business with the city are asked to call or email city staff in advance of visiting city facilities.

•The Town of Carl has closed city hall through the end of the month.

•The Town of Bethlehem’s city hall remained open to the public as of press time.

OTHERS

•The Auburn, Statham and Winder public libraries are closed through March 30. Library leaders are encouraging patrons to take advantage of the libraries' digital collection at prlib.org.

•The Barrow County Museum will be closed to the public through March 31. The Barrow County Historical Society’s Board of Trustees will reassess the situation as circumstances warrant, president LeAnne Akin said.

•The Barrow County Chamber of Commerce has canceled all of its monthly meetings for April. The chamber’s annual golf tournament remains scheduled for April 28, but chamber president Tommy Jennings said that is subject to change. The chamber office remains open but will have a limited staff until further notice.

•Winder First Baptist Church announced it was moving its gatherings to online only for at least the next two weeks — Sunday, March 22 and Sunday, March 29. Services will be livestreamed on www.facebook.com/winderfirst. You do not have to have a Facebook account to watch the service. For more information, go to www.winderfirst.com.

•Several local restaurants have made announcements on social media and by email regarding service plans. Most all of them can be found on Facebook. The CDC has recommended that public gatherings be no more than 10 people.

•The Tree House Inc. postponed its annual “A Night of Hope for Children” live and silent auction, originally scheduled for Friday, March 20, until a later date.

•The Barrow County Food Pantry will still hold its monthly food distribution day to people in need at 8 a.m. Thursday, March 26, though the procedures will be modified. The event will be held at Holly Hill Mall, across from Hill’s Ace Hardware, 186 West Athens St., Winder. Clients are asked not to come before 7:30 a.m. and to stay in their vehicles. Vehicles will be lined up and food will be placed into cars.  Clients are asked to have their trunks cleaned out so food can quickly be put in. They are also asked not to smoke. The event is sponsored by the Winder Noon Lions Club and White Oak Spring Missionary Baptist Church and is open to all Barrow County residents who meet USDA income-eligibility requirements. Proof of county residency is required. Food will be served on a first-come, first-served basis.

•A career fair to be hosted by the Winder Housing Authority on May 12 has been canceled.

CONTACT US

If you are the organizer of an event or leader of an organization and have cancellation/postponement/closure information to share, please email them to editor Scott Thompson at sthompson@barrownewsjournal.com. And continue to check barrownewsjournal.com for the latest online updates.


Photo by Ron Bridgeman 

Penny Clack, Barrow County’s Emergency Management Agency director, talks after the meeting Wednesday with Col. Mike Hamm from the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office.


News
School system extends closure until April 13

The Barrow County School System's schools will remain closed until April 13, after the system's spring break, officials announced Tuesday, March 17.

The district had announced last week it was closing March 16-29 in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Brian Kemp, on Monday, March 16, ordered that all of the state's public schools be closed through the end of the month.

No extra-curricular activities, including sports, will be held during the closure in Barrow County. The district is currently implementing a home-learning model for students, and teachers and staff are working from home and are available to parents and students through email. 

As for other schools, as of press time, Bethlehem Christian Academy was closed through at least March 29 and had distance-learning plans in place. Lanier Technical College is closed at all campuses until further notice, and online instruction will begin Monday, March 23.

‘LEARNING FROM HOME’

The Barrow County School System implemented a home-learning model while schools are closed.

Under “Learning from Home,” the district has compiled learning activities, and teachers across all grade levels are creating and implementing online learning, according to a news release issued Friday.

There are separate activities by grade level. Go to https://www.barrow.k12.ga.us/updates/home-learning for complete details and links.

FREE MEALS FOR CHILDREN

The school system will provide free meals to any child from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. through March 27 at Apalachee and Winder-Barrow high schools. The meals are free for any child under 18.

Grab-n-Go bags include both breakfast and lunch and can be picked up during those hours once each day. The schools announced about 1 p.m. Tuesday that community organizations and individuals have asked if they can deliver food to neighborhoods, apartments and individual families.

Families can sign up to have meals delivered if they are unable to get to these two locations. If you need meals delivered to your child or children (anyone under the age of 18), go to Bit.ly/BCSSmeals to sign up.

The schools requested that anyone who can pick up meals should do so.

“We also ask for your patience as we work through the logistics of this new initiative,” Shenley Rountree, the district’s public relations director, said.

There might be a day or two delay to coordinate delivery. “While we are doing our best to provide delivery, we cannot guarantee this is possible in every instance. We are relying on our community volunteers,” Rountree said.

Children must be present when anyone comes to the drive-through for pick-up. Look for the signs at each school and learn more at https://www.barrow.k12.ga.us/updates/meals-for-children.

The BCSS nutrition staff is preparing the meals.

The district will use its website as the central location for all information about the school closure.


News
Newspaper offices closed to the public

Mainstreet Newspapers' offices will be closed to the public until further notice.

Offices in Jefferson, Danielsville, Winder and Homer are closed in response to the Coronavirus crisis.

Those needing to contact the newspapers may do so via email, telephone or the papers' websites. Drop boxes are also available at each location.

Many of the newspapers' reporters and editors are working from home when possible.

The papers will be published on their regular weekly schedule and available at newsstands and subscriptions via the USPS.

Watch for updates on our website at mainstreetnews.com.

To check on subscriptions and other services, call 706-367-5233.

Editors may also be contacted at:

The Jackson Herald

Mike Buffington

mike@mainstreetnews.com

The Braselton News

Alex Buffington

alex@mainstreetnews.com

The Madison County Journal

Zach Mitcham

zach@mainstreetnews.com

The Barrow News-Journal

Scott Thompson

sthompson@barrownewsjournal.com

The Banks County News

Angela Gary

angie@mainstreetnews.com