The Jackson County community — and the rest of the nation — is largely shutdown due to growing concerns about the Coronavirus.
So far in the Jackson County area, five cases have been reported: Two at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Braselton and three in Athens. The three in Athens are not connected to Jackson County, officials say.
The events surrounding this emerging crisis have been happening rapidly since March 12, changing literally hour-by-hour.
Some health officials, including the CDC, believe some degree of self-isolation and social-distancing may need to be done for eight weeks or longer to slow the spread of the virus.
On Monday evening, March 16, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution adopting the guidelines about public gatherings that had been handed down earlier in the day by federal and state officials. The new guidelines strongly suggest that no more than 10 people gather at any one place and time. That includes churches, government meetings, schools and other events.
BOC chairman Tom Crow made the motion for the county to adopt the stricter guidelines. While the resolution doesn't have the force of law, it was another sign of just how seriously local officials have begun to take the virus threat.
On Tuesday, the county government announced it would postpone the Jackson County Planning Commission meeting scheduled for March 26 and the Keep Jackson Beautiful spring recycling event slated for April 18.
Meanwhile, county emergency management officials said they continue to have a difficult time getting masks and face shields.
"We currently have a critically low supply of N-95 masks and face shields," said Jackson County EMA director Bryan Bullock. "We have submitted a resource request to DHP for additional supplies. GEMA has received a small order of these supplies from the national stockpile."
In Jefferson, Mayor Steve Quinn announced that the town's council will meet March 23, but the meeting will be closed to the public and live-streamed for people to watch remotely.
The state is considering ordering all restaurants to close dining rooms and only provide takeout and drive-thru service, according to emergency officials. Many local restaurants have already begun to do that, or have reduced dining room hours.
On Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp ordered all schools and colleges in the state to remain closed at least through March 31. Kemp had previously left the decision to close schools up to local districts.
The state also recommended Monday that people have enough food to last for 15 days.
As this newspaper goes to press, the following is an overview of the closures and changes that we know about in the Jackson County area:
• All local schools and area colleges are closed. Students are scheduled to do "remote learning" on digital devices from their homes. Schools continue to distribute food to low-income students via pickup locations.
• Local courts have curtailed operations through an emergency order. No juries will be brought in to hear cases and only emergency and essential court hearings will be held before a judge. The courthouse, for now, remains open to the public, however people will be asked to only go into offices one at a time, waiting in the foyer for their turn. The Probate Court has stopped issuing new gun carrying licenses or renewing existing licenses. Existing licenses will remain good until the crisis is over.
• Law enforcement officials will be handling calls with more caution. Situations that need to have only a report will be done by phone in some local agencies.
• Many businesses have limited contact with the public by using only drive-thru services and closing public access to their offices. Among those are JEMC and the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority.
• Most civic clubs, libraries and other community organizations have canceled their meeting or suspended operations.
• Jefferson has canceled its Foliage Fest that was planned for March 21. The Tree Council will still be distributing their tree sale orders on March 21 in the Crawford W. Long Museum parking lot from 9 a.m.-12 p.m.
• The City of Arcade has canceled its ribbon cutting at the city park scheduled for March 24, the Azalea Festival on April 25 and the Pounding for Paws 5K also on April 25.
• Area hospitals, nursing homes and jails have restricted access to the public.
• All athletic and recreation events have been canceled.
• Many churches are cancelling in-person services and live-streaming their events.
• The Tree House, Inc. has postponed its annual “A Night of Hope for Children” that was scheduled for Friday, March 20.
• Commerce officials urge the public to use the city's online services as much as possible and to use the city's dropbox.
• The Jackson County Senior Citizens Center has closed until March 30. Officials are working to expand the center's meals-on-wheels deliveries to serve all the center's regular visitors who come there to eat. Those affected are asked to contact Senior Center Director Kathy Branyon at 706-367-5101 to coordinate their home delivery of hot, chef, or frozen meals.
• Jackson County 4-H has canceled all specialty clubs, competitive team practices and other educational programming until March 30
• Braselton Municipal Courts for March 17 and April 7 have been cancelled.
•The City of Jefferson Municipal Court has been postponed until further notice.
Jackson County officials are worried that a shortage of medical and cleaning supplies could hamper their ability to respond to a likely Coronavirus outbreak.
At a meeting of county school, EMS, law enforcement, health care, nursing home, fire department and other local emergency officials held March 12, leaders said they had low stockpiles of basic supplies needed to respond to a large outbreak.
Of particular concern is a shortage of M95 masks, face shields, gowns and disinfectants.
"We're doing the best we can, but I'm going to be honest, it's with limited resources because there's nothing out there that we can purchase right now," said Jackson County EMS director Jason Baker.
Baker said a shortage of cleaning supplies to disinfect ambulances and equipment was another potential problem.
That kind of shortage was echoed by other officials who said getting supplies was becoming a big issue.
There are emergency medical stockpiles, but accessing those requires state and federal permission and the community would have to first run out of its existing supplies before those stocks could be opened.
Several local nursing homes represented at the meeting said they had already curtailed outside visitors, or would soon do so.
The Coronavirus appears to be most deadly in older people who often have underlying health issues.
One nursing home said that facility has its own kits to test for Coronavirus in-house should that be necessary.
A particular concern was the potential for contamination by an infected EMS worker responding to a nursing home for another type of call, such as a fall or other medical need. EMS and nursing home officials had some discussion about how to best respond to those situations to minimize contact inside a facility.
Related to the elderly population, a representative from the Jackson County Senior Center said the facility was still open, but was doing more cleaning and disinfecting in the building and in its transport vans.
The center's meals-on-wheels program has seen some changes as some older, homebound residents want their food delivered outside their houses to minimize contact with delivery personnel.
If the center should close for a while due to the virus, the official said it has enough meals to supply its customers for two weeks.
County fire departments mostly reported that they had done additional training and prepared their own stockpiles of medical supplies.
Fire and rescue officials often respond to EMS calls, but that may be changing for general sickness calls to minimize contact with Coronavirus carriers.
Some details, such as doing initial assessments from six-feet away and having only one person go into a home at first, have also been put into place to limit contact.
Several departments said they had stockpiled some food in case of an extended shutdown.
While law enforcement personnel could come into contact with someone carrying the virus during their routine traffic stops, the main concern seemed to be with the county's jail and correctional institute populations, which are highly-concentrated into confined areas.
The county jail has adopted new protocols to screen those arrested and has plans to isolate anyone showing symptoms of the virus from the rest of the jail's population.
The county's correctional institute reported that it had stocked a two-week supply of food in case of a long-term shutdown. It has not limited visitors, but that could happen, officials said.
The focus of the county government has been to ramp-up cleaning and to find ways to make sure there is a "continuity of service" during a prolonged shutdown.
County manager Kevin Poe said the county was scheduled to meet with department heads on March 17 to discuss plans for operations should the virus hit the county hard.
Jackson County Emergency Management Agency director Bryan Bullock, organizer of the meeting, said that if there were a widespread local outbreak, the state's department of public health would step in and basically take over the medical response.
District health department officials were on hand at the meeting to answer questions.
The last week has been an extraordinary time in our community and our nation. The realization has hit that the new Coronavirus will have an impact on all of us in our daily lives. As a community, we need to be prepared to deal with some difficult weeks ahead.
Those of us at The Jackson Herald believe our role in this emergency is to provide our readers timely and accurate information. We are not social media where rumors, fake memes and other disinformation proliferates in times of crisis.
To that end, we have refocused our reporting staff in recent days to report on how our local governments, businesses and other institutions are responding to this national emergency.
In addition, we have opened all our websites for readers to see for free without needing a subscription or log-in information.
We realize that there's a huge flow of information coming out from around the state and nation, but our focus will be mostly on what's happening here in Jackson County. We are in touch with the county's top emergency officials on a regular basis and they have been very open in wanting to share what they know as this crisis evolves.
Within our own operations, we are taking measures to keep our staff healthy. Where possible, people will work from home. Other employees will be staggered in shifts so as not to be exposed at the same time.
In addition, our office will be closed to the public starting Thursday morning. Items that need to get to us physically can be dropped through the door slot. Otherwise, we will be available by email, phone or through our website to transact business.
These are unsettling times, but The Jackson Herald is committed to bringing you the kind of accurate information you need to make informed decisions for yourself, your family and your community.
The Jackson Herald