The huge jump in Covid cases in Jackson County is starting to have an impact on some local schools and area health care facilities.
Over the last two weeks, 505 new confirmed cases have been reported, a rate of 676 per 100,000 people. That's one of the highest rates in the state and doesn't include antigen tests which would make the count even higher. (Georgia doesn't include antigen test results in its data.)
Jackson is part of a cluster of counties in Northeast Georgia where the rate is above 600 per 100,000. Those counties include Banks, Habersham, Stephens and Rabun.
On Dec. 4, the county set a new single day record with 68 confirmed cases. Since March, the county has had 3,810 positive cases (including antigen testing).
In addition, the percentage of testing that is now positive has also skyrocket over the last two weeks to 16.7% on average. Some days have see as much as 25% positive rates.
There has been 53 confirmed deaths and seven additional deaths likely due to Covid in the county. Some 268 people in the county have been hospitalized so far with the virus.
The current outbreak is by far the worst spike in Jackson County of the virus, exceeding previous surges in July and September. The trend follows what is happening across the nation — and many health officials worry that gatherings at Thanksgiving will cause the number of cases to go even higher as the Christmas holiday season ramps up later in the month.
The rise in cases led the Jackson County School System to end in-person classes this week and go to remote learning.
In a memo to parents, superintendent April Howard said the community spread rate is "dangerously high" and that the system had suffered with high numbers of staff absences.
In the Commerce City School System, superintendent Joy Tolbert appealed this week for additional substitute staffing due to staff absences.
"As our employees have to be quarantined, we need as many substitutes as possible," Tolbert wrote in a memo to parents on social media. "Currently, our alumni are home from college, and they are doing a phenomenal job working in our schools. When they return to college in January, we will need additional substitutes."
Tolbert also called on people to wear a mask.
"The only thing that we can do currently to lessen the spread of the virus is wear a mask," she said. "Please encourage everyone to wear a mask in and out of school to keep our community as healthy as possible."
The rise in virus cases is also hitting area hospitals.
Northeast Georgia Medical Center is currently treating over 200 Covid cases across its facilities. It has no beds available at its Braselton campus and only five beds at its Gainesville campus available.
Despite the rapidly climbing numbers, neither the state nor local officials have taken action similar to what was done earlier in the year to limit public gatherings or temporarily close businesses where the virus is thought to be spreading.
Nor have officials imposed mask mandates, something that has been met with hostility by some who say their freedom is being taken away with mask requirements.
An angry customer at a store at Banks Crossing recently set a mask on fire outside the store after being told he had to wear a mask inside the business.
A proposed list of updates and changes to the county's HR policy book includes a new section on employee use of social media.
The move comes following the firing of former EMS employee John Pethel for a post he made on Facebook in June where he said "shoot them all" in reference to protesters in Gainesville.
Pethel has appealed his firing, which was recently heard before an outside hearing officer. During that hearing, officials were asked about the county's policy on social media. County manager Kevin Poe said the county had not yet adopted a specific policy regarding employee use of social media.
Among other proposed changes in the county's HR manual, a new section would be created that specifically addresses the social media issue. One of the items appears to address situations similar to the Pethel incident:
"Users shall not engage in any blogging or social media posting that may harm or tarnish the image, reputation and/or goodwill of the County and /or any of its Users. Users are also prohibited from making any discriminatory, disparaging, defamatory or harassing comments when blogging or otherwise engaging in any conduct prohibited by the Jackson County Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment policy."
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners was presented with the proposed HR changes at its Dec. 7 meeting. The board could take a vote on the updates at its Dec. 21 meeting.
In other business, the BOC discussed:
•a speed zone ordinance/radar list, which allows the county to use radar speed detection on certain stretches of road.
•a contract for wood debris grinding for the Jackson County Transfer Station. He lowest bid was from Roll Off Systems, of Statham, with a $96,000 monthly rate or $4,800 daily rate.
•a resolution for county road ownership for the Georgia Department of Transportation LMIG program.
The board approved the following items:
•a resolution to adopt the five-year comprehensive plan update.
•reappointing Donna Geiger and Max Allen to the county airport authority for a three-year term.
•reappointing Mark Palmer to the board of adjustment for a four-year term.
•reappointing Dr. Joanna Suarez to the board of health for a five-year term.
•reappointing Joe Hicks to the industrial development authority for a five-year term.
•reappointing Jamie Dove and Tom Page to the solid waste management authority for a two-year term.
•reappointing Josh Huskins, Jay Phillips and Jimmy Peck to the parks and recreation advisory board.
•reappointing Marty Clark to the planning commission.
Commerce leaders acknowledged the rise in local Covid cases, but didn't take any specific action during its Dec. 7 work sesson meeting.
Mayor Clark Hill, who is a physician, reported the city has not received any official new direction from the state as far as the virus is concerned. Hill said there is a lot of information on the department of health's website and the number of cases in Jackson County is up.
“There will be more information forthcoming and we will try to keep everyone informed,” Hill said. “At this point, we are not planning any changes or recommendations. but that could change day to day.”
The virus has surged in the local community in recent weeks with a large increase in positive cases.
In other business at the work session, the council:
• heard that Commerce recently acquired a piece of property that will allow for annexation of 214 acres for industrial development. The small parcel of land, believed to be an old road right-of-way along Hardman Orchard Road, was previously owned by Jackson County. The county voted to deed the property, consisting of approximately two acres, to the city in order to allow annexation of the larger industrial tract without creating an island. The council also reviewed a request from Dakota Commerce LLC to annex the large parcel for a heavy industrial planned development which could give the opportunity for additional manufacturing or distribution centers in the city.
• reviewed a proposed ordinance to allow for residential use of accessory buildings. Due to an increased number of requests from citizens, the council had the city staff prepare regulations to permit property owners to convert an existing or new accessory building for residential use by a family member. The regulations would prohibit commercial use of the building or use for rental purposes. The building must consist of less than 1,000 square feet of livable space and an annual affidavit will be required to ensure the building is not becoming a rental space. If the building is a new construction, it must be built in the back of the primary structure and metered with the existing structure. Property owners Helen and Gary Venable applied for special residential use of an accessory building a few months ago, a move that led to the proposed regulations.
• heard that SK Battery had presented the city will a donation in the amount of $30,000. The funds will be used to purchase books for the library.
• reviewed a proposal for janitorial services of five city buildings. Staff is recommending the council approve a bid from The Service Fort in the amount of $24,888 for a term of one year.
• reviewed a bid of $464,722 for purchase of a new fire engine from Ten-8 Fire Equipment. Proceeds from SPLOST will be used to fund the purchase. This will give the city newer engines at both fire stations.
• reviewed a quote from CSRA Probation Services for court probation services. Any funds collected through probation will be divided equally between the probation service and the city until all fines and fees have been paid. In the past, the probation company would collect their fees first and allocate the remaining to the city fines.
• reviewed a bid from Over and Under General Contractors to replace 18 electric poles identified as in need of replacement during the last city pole survey. Replacement of the poles will cost $64,483.
• reviewed annual renewals of alcohol licenses for 2021 for 24 business.
Plans for a March referendum to continue the ESPLOST in Jackson County's three school districts got put on hold Dec. 2 when the county's board of elections refused to call for the March voting.
The Jackson County Board of Elections voted 4-1, with board member James White dissenting, to table action until January on calling for the referendum.
Board of election actions to call for a vote is generally routine and not controversial. It is the first time the board has ever not approved a call for an election when asked by a local government to do so.
The move leaves leaders in the county's three school districts hanging, uncertain about what will happen next.
The voting for a joint school referendum is complex in the county since there are three independent school systems. The ESPLOST vote has to be held in each district and has to pass in each of the three districts. It means, in part, that both the City of Jefferson and City of Commerce have to hold elections in coordination with the county.
The elections board tabled action on calling for the vote due to what it said was a technical issue with the document and because the board only received a copy of the referendum just before its 8:30 a.m. board meeting.
The Jackson County Board of Education held a called meeting earlier that morning at 7 a.m. to call for the SPLOST referendum. Both the Jefferson City BOE and Commerce City BOE are expected to make their votes later this month at their regular board meetings.
While the elections board delayed action on calling for the March voting, it only did so after Republican board member Larry Ewing voiced opposition to the matter, saying the vote should have been held with November's General Election.
"They want their own special election and I need to understand that," he said.
Elections board chairman Eric Crawford suggested that the March special election call is a strategic move by the school systems to help get the measure passed.
"If I were a school board and I wanted something passed, I'd make sure there was an election with a very low turnout where my people who want it come to the polls," Crawford said.
Ewing also complained about the cost of the county having to hold a special election when it could have been done with an existing vote process.
"They don't care what it cost to run an election," he said.
He also complained about the SPLOST idea in general.
"We've closed down three or four schools and we want more money to build more," he said. "We want our own special election to do that. I have a problem with that, a serious problem."
Jackson County School System superintendent April Howard said the SPLOST funds are needed to help pay for infrastructure in the growing school system.
"SPLOST is the primary revenue source for the construction of new schools and debt service," she said. "Without SPLOST, any new facilities, additions, and improvements become the burden of the local property owners through property tax collections."
Both the county and Jefferson school systems have pressing needs for new schools and expansions due to population growth. Both systems have held meetings recently to begin the process of those projects.
In other business, the elections board voted 4-1 to certify the county's Nov. 3 elections results.
Board member Jeff Hughes, a Republican representative on the board was the lone dissenting vote.
During a discussion preceding the vote, Hughes asked a number of questions about the elections process and how signatures are matched to absentee ballots.
Nationally, some Republicans have alleged fraud in the election after President Donald Trump was defeated.
Trump carried Jackson County with around 79% of the vote.
Hughes didn't criticize the county elections process and praised local elections officials for their work.
He didn't give a reason for not voting to certify the county's election results, something that is typically a routine matter.
In other business, county elections manager Jennifer Logan gave an update about the plans for the upcoming Jan. 5 runoff for two U.S. Senate seats and a PSC seat in the state. She said her office had received a number of absentee ballot requests so far.
Logan also said her office is working on a backup plan for Jan. 5 in case an ice storm or other bad weather makes opening polls difficult.
A ruling is expected this week on a challenge to SK Battery's plans to produce batteries in Commerce.
The International Trade Commission delayed a ruling in October to Dec. 10.
The ITC is reviewing a lawsuit by LG Chem, a rival EV battery-maker, that SK illegally stole trade secrets about manufacturing electric vehicle batteries.
An adverse ruling against SK could affect the company's plans to produce batteries at its $2.6 billion facilities in Commerce.
The October delay may have been done to give the two firms more time to reach a settlement agreement.
But a settlement may not be in the offing, based on recent filings by SK to the ITC. According to BusinessKorea, SK sent a letter in late November to the ITC saying its batteries are needed in the U.S. in part because of electric vehicle fires that had LG batteries in them.
The letter angered LG Chem. The move was nothing but a ploy to get the ITC to again delay its ruling, LG Chem alleged.
"SK Innovation's recent submission of its opinion is intended to postpone the final ruling," LG Energy Solutions said in a statement. "The ITC should not extend the final verdict date that has already been postponed twice."
The move to delay until Dec. 10 also put the ruling past the Nov. 3 elections, a move that could untangle the issue from its political overtones.
A number of local and state political leaders have been lobbying the ITC for a ruling that lets SK continue with its operations, arguing that the 2,600 jobs being created by the firm outweigh the allegations of intellectual theft.
But some other political leaders, including former Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland, have argued that the ITC should hold SK accountable for its actions.
If the ITC rules against SK and imposes tough sanctions, the issue could end up on the president's desk. Only the president can override an ITC ruling.
In addition to the trade secrets issue, LG Chem also alleges that SK destroyed evidence of its misdeeds by erasing emails after the ITC judge ordered a forensic inspection of SK's computer system.
The ITC has earlier signaled it would side with LG Chem in the suit. That position got a boost in September when the ITC's Office of Unfair Import Investigations submitted a report to the judge backing LG Chem's position.
What all this means for Commerce and Jackson County is still unclear, but industry officials believe a ruling against SK could disrupt its plans to produce EV batteries in Commerce.
LG Chem is asking the ITC to sanction SK by not allowing it to import key machinery it would need to manufacture the batteries.
SK batteries are slated to be use in a new SUV by Volkswagen being built in Chattanooga, Tenn. and by Ford in EV F-150 trucks.