In a hopeful development amid a monumental, yet dreadful, year, several frontline medical workers in the area have begun receiving coronavirus vaccinations in the past week. But medical leaders are continuing to urge caution as Christmas arrives and Barrow County, northeast Georgia and much of the rest of the state continue to be battered by a record surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Northeast Georgia Health System received its first batch of the Pfizer vaccine — 5,000 doses — on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, and vaccinated its first seven employees Thursday evening at the system’s flagship hospital in Gainesville. Additional vaccinations began Friday, Dec. 18, at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton.
“It feels like Christmas came early,” NGHS president and CEO Carol Burrell said in a news release. “It’s been a long eight months for our organization and our community, as we continue to see record numbers of COVID patients. We still have a long journey ahead of us, but simply having a vaccine in our hands is a tremendous and positive step forward.”
As of Monday, Dec. 21, NGHS had administered nearly 1,000 doses. Hospital leaders hope to have the first batch administered by the end of the month and expect to receive the next Pfizer shipment and first shipment of the Moderna vaccine — which received federal authorization for distribution last week — by the end of the month.
Sunita Singh, public relations manager for Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow, which is part of NGHS, said the Winder hospital is not receiving any doses for now, but more information about the amount and frequency of vaccine shipments will be released as it becomes available.
“We hope other COVID-19 vaccines developed by different companies and research groups will receive federal approval soon, which would allow us to vaccinate our workforce and people in our community, faster than planned,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, NGMC’s medical director of infectious disease medicine, on Dec. 17, prior to the announcement of the Moderna vaccination approval. “I’m amazed at how quickly our team has worked through detailed logistics to make this possible — just like they have with so many other challenges during the pandemic.”
Vaccinations are being stored at NGMC Gainesville in specially-ordered freezers that will maintain the proper storage temperatures, officials said.
A vaccination planning committee — representing a range of departments within the hospital system — was formed to prioritize which groups of employees would get vaccinated first. The committee created a phased-in approach based on risk.
“Our top priority groups for receiving the vaccine are our frontline healthcare workers, long term care patients and staff in other high-risk groups,” officials said.
NGHS employees are not required to take the vaccination, but those with patient-contact are strongly encouraged to do so.
Safety precautions will remain in place across the hospital system. Hospital leaders noted that those who receive the vaccine won’t be immediately protected, adding that protection will occur around two weeks after the second shot.
And it may still be possible for vaccinated people to transmit the virus to those who haven’t been vaccinated.
“Even though a staff member may have received their vaccine, most of the people around them have not,” officials said. “We know the vaccine prevents disease in the vaccinated person, but it still may be possible to transmit the disease to others. Wearing a mask, social distancing and practicing hand hygiene protects those who have not been vaccinated.”
Mannepalli stressed the community should still continue practicing health and safety measures for some time.
“It’s important to remember that vaccination isn’t a magic bullet that will end the pandemic immediately,” she said. “People need to continue following the 3 Ws — wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance — even after getting the vaccine, at least until herd immunity is achieved.”
Important information about COVID-19 vaccines, including details about when they may be available to the general public, answers to frequently asked questions and more, is available at nghs.com/covid-vaccine.
Elsewhere, the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Athens-based Northeast Health District began providing COVID-19 vaccines to health care workers by appointment Friday. Vaccinations are being administered at the Clarke County Health Department.
Due to limited availability, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has recommended that certain priority population groups receive the vaccine first. This tiered method of vaccine distribution will prioritize the most vulnerable populations along with key parts of the workforce, health district officials said in a news release.
The Northeast Health District will be distributing COVID-19 vaccines to Tier 1A, which includes people serving in health care settings and residents of nursing homes.
“We have all been waiting for this moment, and we look forward to being able to provide protection to all of our community members as soon as enough vaccine becomes available. But for right now, it is critical that we use the limited supply to protect our healthcare workers and those most at risk from infection,” said Dr. Stephen Goggans, the district’s health director. “This is a tremendous step forward in the fight against COVID-19.”
Health care workers whose employers are not providing COVID-19 vaccines may make an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccination through a Northeast Health District clinic by calling 706-340-0996.
Members of other priority groups may visit PublicHealthAthens.com to complete a pre-registration form. Members of the priority groups who are eligible to receive the vaccine will be contacted to complete the registration process and will be notified when an appointment is available.
For more information about how groups are prioritized for vaccine eligibility, go to https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations-process.html.
For local COVID-19 vaccination information, go to https://publichealthathens.com/wp/programs/infectious-disease/coronavirus-covid-19-information/covid-19-vaccination/.
Barrow County saw yet another daily high of new coronavirus cases Friday, as the DPH confirmed 75 new cases in the county over a 24-hour period. Sixty-six more cases were confirmed in the county Tuesday, Dec. 22, as the cumulative total for Barrow since the onset of the pandemic shot up to 4,283, with a seven-day rolling average of 53.6 new cases per day as of Tuesday — a record high.
There had been 63 confirmed deaths among Barrow County residents as of Tuesday afternoon, including new deaths reported on Thursday and Saturday, Dec. 19. In another alarming sign, the county’s percent-positivity rate on tests has continued to remain above 20 percent in the past week.
The virus exacted its heaviest toll yet on Barrow County School System employees in the past week, with 21 positive cases confirmed among staffers from Dec. 10-16 and another 22 quarantined as a “probable case.”
Another 77 staffers were quarantined as a precaution due to coming in direct contact with someone with a positive or probable case.
Winder Elementary School was the hardest-hit school in terms of employees and had to revert to virtual instruction in the final week before winter break, which began after school Friday. Schools are scheduled to resume instruction Jan. 11.
Also from Dec. 10-16, 26 students tested positive, nine were quarantined as a probable case and 514 were quarantined as a direct-contact precaution.
School district officials have said they are not currently planning a districtwide closure but will enact targeted closures at schools that fail to maintain sufficient staffing levels or have significant outbreaks of positive cases among the student population.
On Tuesday, NGHS reported another record-high number of patients positive for COVID-19 who were being treated at its facilities — 276, including 11 at NGMC Barrow, the most in a day there since early May, and 58 at NGMC Braselton as the system continued to tread on the brink of capacity. Another 48 patients across the system were awaiting their test results as of Tuesday morning.
The seven-day average of positive tests at NGHS facilities reached a new high mark of just under 27.7 percent, and 23 people died of COVID-19 at the facilities between Friday and Tuesday, increasing the recorded death toll to 516. There were 135 people discharged from the hospitals during that same timeframe, but the increasing high numbers show more and more people are getting sick and requiring hospitalization.
So while there is a sense of excitement and hope surrounding the arrival of the vaccine, hospital leaders are stressing the need to continue practicing COVID safety precautions, especially during the upcoming holidays.
“It’s certainly a big, positive milestone, and several of our staff have said they hope it’s the beginning of the end for the pandemic,” said Tara Jernigan, chief nursing officer at NGMC Braselton. “That said, we still have several months to go, and I don’t think there will be a true sense of relief until we start seeing less COVID-positive patients in our hospitals. We really hope people in our community don’t let their guard down during Christmas, because another spike after the holidays could be catastrophic.
“Please, please, celebrate safely.”
Alex Buffington contributed to this report.
The Statham City Council will wait at least another month before voting on a rezoning request that would allow a large residential subdivision of more than 170 single-family homes south of Atlanta Highway in the downtown area.
The council voted Tuesday, Dec. 15, to table the request by Macas Development and the Mrs. Kurtz Moore and Jack Rivers Stapleton estates (property owners) to rezone 75.5 acres at 541 and 546 Moore Dr. for 174 single-family homes to be built on smaller lots than allowed under the current zoning. The developer had 197 homes included in the original application.
The council, which already held a public hearing on the request Dec. 3, after delaying that by a month, is now scheduled to hold a vote at its 7 p.m. Jan. 19 meeting.
Stanton Porter, the attorney representing the applicants, requested that the item be tabled so the developer could work with the project engineer on a traffic study to present to the council next month. Porter said the study would be aimed at trying to alleviate concerns expressed by council members and residents over the traffic issues the development could present. He said the developer also wants additional time to study the feasibility to add a third entrance to/exit from the proposed subdivision on Bethlehem Road/Highway 211, which city staff has recommended among a list of more than 20 conditions for approval.
In addition to the main entrance off Atlanta Highway, the developer has plans at the city’s recommendation to have a second entrance off Jefferson Street and extend Jefferson across city property. An additional entrance, for emergency vehicle access only, is being eyed on Park Street.
“It’s smart for a project this size to move forward incrementally,” Porter said. “We want to see if we can get something that is approvable, that is the best product and would be a successful project and a benefit, not a detriment, (to the city’s citizens).”
In addition to potential traffic issues, concerns have been raised by council members and residents over the impact on the city’s infrastructure and the Barrow County School System’s two schools in the city (Statham Elementary and Bear Creek Middle). Resident Andy Woods said at the Dec. 3 public hearing that the developer should aim for larger homes on larger lots for a “higher-quality” development with higher property values.
The city staff’s recommendation was that the development include no more than 175 homes, with a minimum lot size of 7,500 square feet, and that no more than 25 percent of the homes be less than 1,650 square feet.
Councilman Dwight McCormic cautioned that the developer may not want to “waste a whole bunch of money” on a traffic study if a main concern was the density of the proposed development.
“A lot of (the property) is unbuildable,” Porter replied. “The rezone is being requested to allow for smaller lots, not to cram a bunch of extra houses in.”
In other action at its Dec. 15 meeting, the council tabled until next month a potential vote on what to do with more than $300,000 in money for a proposed mixed-use development at State Route 316 and McCarty Road that was started in 2012 but has yet to come to fruition.
The project — which has been backed by a $300,000 federal grant that was administered through the Atlanta Regional Commission, along with the city funding and a match by Walton Development — was intended to be used for a water lift station. But Walton, the Canadian-based real estate firm, is no longer seeking to develop the property and has put it up for sale. Mayor Joe Piper said Walton’s principal players in the initial project are no longer involved with the company, and the company has switched from being a developer to a “land flipper.”
Walton now typically focuses on pre-development of raw land by purchasing undeveloped property in high-growth areas, acquiring appropriate zoning, then eventually selling the property to developers.
Walton has continued divesting itself of numerous real estate holdings in the Atlanta area this year, including a few in neighboring Jackson County.
A plan by Walton to have the City of Arcade annex a large tract in south Jackson County near the Clarke County line was thwarted in 2014 after a public outcry over the idea. Walton wanted to annex the land to get a more favorable zoning for higher density housing than it could have gotten from the county board of commissioners.
Walton was successful in having Arcade annex the large tract known as the old 4-W Farm into the town for a massive master planned community, but the property remains undeveloped.
Councilman Gary Venable has said he would like to see the $313,000 Statham has on hand for the project to be redirected for well development to help relieve the city’s water dependency on Barrow County and the City of Winder. Venable and councilwoman Tammy Crawley said self-sufficiency should be the city’s ultimate aim. Venable noted that the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years in water purchases.
“There’s not much movement that I can tell (with the project),” Venable said. “…That’s a lot of money going to entities other than (the City of Statham). The goal here is to find a clean-water solution that Statham owns and operates. We don’t have a plan, as I understand it, to fund that solution. But water revenues are how we fund most of our budget. If our infrastructure is crumbling, how long is that sustainable? That’s the issue for me.”
Jordan McDaniel, the city’s public works director, has recommended that the project funds be left in place for a lift station and that the city look for other funding to support a water research project. The city can’t apply for grant monies to assist with that until it is up to date on its audits. Piper said the city’s auditor should have a draft of the 2018 audit to submit to the council within the next month and has started work on the 2019 audit.
In other business at the Dec. 15 meeting, the council approved a memorandum of understanding with Barrow County Emergency Services to conduct fire safety inspections within the city. Piper said the city canceled an MOU with the Georgia State Fire Marshal’s Office in 2012 and the county has been performing the services as a courtesy since then.
Mike Buffington contributed background reporting on the Walton item.
Roughly 10,500 Barrow Countians had voted early for the Jan. 5 runoff election as of Monday afternoon, Dec. 21.
Voters are deciding between candidates for both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats that will determine party control of the chamber, as well as a Georgia Public Service Commission seat.
Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue is seeking a second term and is being challenged by Democrat Jon Ossoff. Perdue narrowly edged Ossoff in the Nov. 3 general election, but failed to get over the 50-percent-plus-one threshold required to avoid a runoff. In the other Senate race, Republican Kelly Loeffler is seeking her first full term after being appointed to the seat last year and is being challenged by Democrat Raphael Warnock. Loeffler and Warnock were the top two vote-getters in the “jungle primary” special election, which featured more than 20 candidates on the same ballot in November.
A runoff election for the public service commission seat between Republican incumbent Lauren “Bubba” McDonald and Democratic challenger Daniel Blackman is also on the ballot after the originally-scheduled December runoff for that race was postponed by a month to coincide with the Senate elections.
According to county elections director Monica Franklin, 6,268 people took advantage of the first week in-person early voting last week in Barrow County. The elections office had also received back 4,295 of the 7,417 absentee ballots that were requested as of Monday afternoon, Franklin said.
A little more than 38,000 people in Barrow voted in the November general election, a turnout of 68.4 percent among registered voters.
In-person early voting was continuing this week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the county elections office, 233 East Broad St., Winder. The office will be closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as well as New Year’s Day, and there is no weekend voting.
The final week of early voting will be Monday-Thursday, Dec. 28-31, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.
Voting on Jan. 5 will be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the county’s eight precinct locations. Those are:
•Bethlehem Community Center, 750 Manger Ave., Bethlehem.
•Bethlehem Church (211 Campus), 1061 Old Thompson Mill Rd., Hoschton.
•Hmong New Hope Alliance Church, 1622 Union Grove Church Rd., Auburn.
•Covenant Life Sanctuary, 115 Patrick Mill Rd. SW, Winder.
•Barrow County Fire Station 1, 1625 Bethlehem Rd., Statham.
•First Baptist Church, 625 Jefferson Hwy., Winder.
•Winder Community Center, 113 East Athens St., Winder.
•The Church at Winder, 546 Treadwell Rd., Bethlehem.
To find your polling location, you can call the elections office at 770-307-3110, go to the county website or go to mvp.sos.ga.gov.
The county is accepting absentee ballot requests through 4 p.m. Dec. 31, though the Post Office will be closed on New Year’s Day.
Forms can be mailed to or turned in in-person at the elections office, emailed to email@example.com or faxed to 770-307-1054.
Absentee ballots are due at the elections office by 7 p.m. Jan. 5.
All forms and additional information can be found at http://barrowga.org/departments/elections-registration-main.aspx.
The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld the second murder conviction of a Winder man in connection with the July 2011 killing of his wife after tossing out the initial conviction due to the exclusion of evidence in his first trial.
In a unanimous ruling dated Monday, Dec. 21, with Justice Sarah Hawkins Warren not participating, the state’s high court ruled that James Morris Lynn Jr.’s malice murder conviction and life-without-parole sentence for beating his wife, Tonya Lynn, 38, to death with a baseball bat should stand. The court vacated Lynn’s concurrent 20-year sentence for aggravated assault, saying that count should have been merged with the malice murder count for sentencing.
Lynn was indicted in October 2011 by a Barrow County grand jury on malice murder and aggravated assault charges, and he was convicted on both counts in Barrow County Superior Court following a jury trial in June 2012. The state Supreme Court reversed that conviction in 2014 due on the basis that evidence that Tonya Lynn engaged in two extramarital affairs was excluded from the trial. The court at the time argued that evidence would have corroborated James Lynn’s testimony that Tonya told him of her infidelity just before he killed her and could have resulted in a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter.
Lynn was retried in August and September 2015 and again convicted on all counts. His motion for a new trial was denied by the trial court in May and he appealed to the Supreme Court.
Lynn argued that the Supreme Court should vacate the trial court’s order denying him a new trial for “lack of adequate findings” and remand for new detailed findings. He also argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial during the second trial, that he had ineffective counsel at the trial and that those combined errors “cumulatively prejudiced” him.
“But the trial court was not required to make detailed findings in denying Lynn’s motion for (a) new trial,” Justice Nels S.D. Peterson wrote in the high court’s 27-page ruling. “The trial court did not err in denying Lynn’s motion for a mistrial because the alleged basis for a mistrial posed little prejudice to Lynn and the court gave a sufficient curative instruction. Lynn’s ineffective assistance claims fail because he has not established that trial counsel performed deficiently in any respect. And his cumulative error argument fails because there are no errors to cumulate.”
After Tonya Lynn went missing on July 27, 2011, James Lynn was interviewed multiple times by authorities and eventually admitted to killing her with the bat and dumping her body in a well on her family’s property.
Prosecutors presented evidence at trial that the Lynns, who had been married 16 years and had four children together, had a tumultuous marriage and separated and filed for divorce in March 2011. They moved back in together less than two months later, but their troubles were not reconciled.
According to trial testimony, Tonya Lynn became increasingly afraid of her husband and told people he had said he would kill her before letting her go. She said she would not leave him immediately due to him having controlled access to their bank accounts, but she began saving money in preparation to leave.
On July 24, Tonya told a man who she began dating during her separation from her husband that James had thrown her into a doorframe and she planned to leave with the children. She also told her cousin on July 26 that she was leaving and had packed her belongings.
On July 27, Tonya did not report to her work, and law enforcement began a search after attempts to reach her were unsuccessful. Tonya’s family members told investigators that James simultaneously claimed that she probably died due to a heart condition and that one of her cousins had probably killed her. James showed up for a requested interview with investigators but had completely wiped his cell phone of data.
Tonya’s vehicle was found in the Winder Library parking lot on July 27, and video surveillance showed that it was left there just after 1:30 a.m. that day by a male, who then got into a truck owned by the woman James had been dating. The woman told investigators she went to the library to pick up James, and he was then arrested July 29 on obstruction charges for lying about not knowing how his wife’s vehicle wound up in the parking lot.
During an interview following the arrest, James admitted to killing Tonya with the bat at their home in Winder and told them where the body was located. After retrieving the body, medical examiners with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined that Tonya had died from blunt force trauma to the head.
James testified at trial that he had killed Tonya out of self-defense and in the heat of the moment. He testified that Tonya’s affair led to their separation and that he believed the affair continued after they moved back in together. James said he confronted Tonya on July 26 about the affair and told her that he was contacting a divorce attorney.
According to James, Tonya became upset and taunted him by saying she was having sexual relations with multiple men, and she then retrieved the bat and swung it at him in the bathroom. James said he snatched the bat away and swung back at her, hitting her twice and leaving the room. When he returned to the room, Tonya was not breathing and didn’t have a pulse. James then wiped her blood off the floor, rolled her into a blanket, slid her down the stairs in the home, put her in the back of his vehicle and drove around town for a while before returning home to clean the house and bathroom. Several hours later, he left for work and dumped the body on his way there.
But prosecutors presented evidence that In a June 30 email to the woman who he had been dating and picked him up from the library, James wrote, “I have high hopes my problem will soon be gone for good. I have to be patient and bide my times wisely and always have a good alibi.” In subsequent emails, James wrote about his anger at the possibility Tonya would leave with their children and said that she “doesn’t deserve to even be living” and that he thought he would be happy if she were “gone for good.”
Lynn argued that the Supreme Court could not undertake a meaningful review of the claims raised in his motion for a new trial because of the absence of detailed findings by the trial court, but the justices disagreed.
“Lynn cites cases in which we have remanded for further findings, but none of those cases involve motions for new trial,” Peterson wrote. “It is well-settled that a trial court is not required to issue written findings of fact and conclusions of law when deciding a motion for new trial. And this principle applies no differently when a motion raises claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. We decline to vacate (the conviction) and remand for a more detailed order.”
Lynn had also argued that the trial court should have granted his motion for a mistrial when the prosecution, in violation of a pretrial agreement between the parties elicited testimony referencing a polygraph test he was given during an interview with a detective. The judge in the case denied Lynn’s motion for a mistrial after the detective mentioned the polygraph during her testimony and instead told the jury that the polygraph was offered to Lynn, that he agreed to take it, that the test was never administered because he already had one scheduled for that same day, and that the jury should disregard any mention of it and not consider it in its deliberations.
Lynn’s case has attracted national attention in the more than nine years since the killing, and his past prior to being married to Tonya also came under increased scrutiny. The GBI reopened an investigation into the death of his first wife, Julie Johnson Lynn, who died in January 1990 at the couple’s home in Metter at age 20 when she was shot in the face. She was pregnant at the time of her death. The cause of death was changed from “suicide” to “undetermined.”