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State announces expansion to vaccine group as COVID-19 surge continues

Georgia officials have announced plans to add additional groups of people to the current group of individuals eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.

Adults 65 and older, law enforcement officers, firefighters and first responders are expected to be eligible for the vaccination in the next two weeks, if adequate supply is available. They will join health care workers and long-term care facility residents, who are already eligible to receive the vaccination.

Georgia public health commissioner Kathleen Toomey and Gov. Brian Kemp announced the expansion of the “Phase 1a vaccination criteria” last week — “provided the state continues to receive adequate vaccine supplies,” according to Kemp.

“We will continue to monitor the administration efforts of our public health workers and partners in the private sector, and the supply chain of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to ensure eligible Georgians are vaccinated without delay,” Kemp said.

While the vaccine is starting to be administered, some reports indicate the rollout in the state has been exceedingly slow.

While the federal government allocated funding to develop and then ship the vaccines, it did not allocate funding for the states to actually administer the vaccine until the most recent legislation was passed.

“Different areas of the state are completing Phase 1a at different times based on the number of healthcare workers and LTCF residents and staff they have to vaccinate,” Toomey said. “This expansion of 1a eligible vaccination criteria will allow vaccine to be administered as quickly as possible to our most at-risk populations in terms of exposure, transmission and severity. It also gives health care providers and public health staff time to plan and work with local communities across the state to ensure safe and efficient deployment of limited vaccine supplies.”

Non-health care individuals in Barrow County who are not a first responder can pre-register for the vaccine by going to the Northeast Health District website at:

https://publichealthathens.com/wp/programs/infectious-disease/coronavirus-covid-19-information/covid-19-vaccination/non-healthcare-covid-vaccine-pre-registration/.

State leaders continue to urge residents to wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently. While the COVID-19 vaccine has shown so far to be 95-percent effective in preventing illness in the individual being vaccinated, it is not yet known if the vaccine fully prevents person-to-person transmission or asymptomatic infections, officials said.

LATEST LOCAL NUMBERS

The latest vaccine news comes as the coronavirus continues to slam the country with its worst surge yet, including around the state and locally.

In its latest daily update at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 5, the Georgia Department of Public Health confirmed 106 new cases in Barrow County, bringing the cumulative total of cases since the onset of the pandemic to 5,224 and increasing the seven-day rolling average to a high mark of 76 new cases per day.

A 24-hour record-high 131 new cases were confirmed in the county Jan. 1, and the county has a rate of 1,071 new cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks. More than a quarter of county residents on average who were tested for COVID-19 over the last week tested positive.

Sixty-seven county residents have died from COVID-19, with the most recently-reported death occurring on Dec. 31, according to the DPH.

Hospitals in the area also remained nearly full, with Northeast Georgia Health System reporting Tuesday morning that 307 patients being treated across its hospitals and other facilities were positive for COVID-19 and another 51 were awaiting test results. The seven-day average on tests administered at NGHS facilities stood at 34.23 percent.

There were 17 COVID-positive patients at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow in Winder and a one-day record 94 at NGMC Braselton on Tuesday morning. Only two beds were available at NGMC Barrow, and the system reported that no ICU beds were available at NGMC Braselton and NGMC Gainesville.

The death toll at NGHS facilities from COVID-19 had increased to 585 as of Tuesday morning — an additional 37 deaths since Dec. 29.


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Proposed Fieldstream development back before Winder council

A proposed large residential subdivision just east of the Winder city limits is coming back before the council this week — six months after the council shot down proposed land annexation and rezoning requests that would have initiated the development. But despite the applicants cutting back the proposed number of homes by more than a third, the city’s planning board has again recommended denial of the requests.

As part of its new meeting schedule for 2021, the city council will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7, in a work session and will hold public hearings on requests by MMK, LLC, and Sullins Engineering to annex seven parcels totaling more than 200 acres south of Atlanta Highway and between Pine Hills Golf Course and Russell Cemetery Road into the city and rezone the bulk of the land to single-family high-density residential in order to build a proposed 240-lot subdivision at 1.57 units per acre. The remaining 45 acres would be rezoned to general commercial.

The applicants last summer proposed a 387-lot subdivision and “light industrial development,” but the proposal drew significant pushback from council members as well as county government leaders over the potential impact on traffic in the area and concerns from county school officials over the strain new homes could cause the district as well as the projected price point of the homes.

The land is currently located within the county’s rural reserve character area, which would limit the developers to only about a third of the homes under the original plan, which the applicants said last summer would not be economically feasible. Future land uses under the county’s character area are recommended to be agriculture, forestry and “very low-density, detached single-family residences” with a maximum of one dwelling unit per two acres), including residential subdivisions that “protect natural features and set aside communal open space.”

The land is also adjacent to the Suburban Neighborhood character area within the city limits. That area’s intent is to “preserve established neighborhoods and create quality new residential development that is consistent with surrounding suburban densities; and are suitable where suburban residential development exists or is likely to, given the presence of sewer (or the potential for sewer expansion) and existing residential zoning. Future development is recommended to be consistent with single-family homes at low to moderate densities. Suburban Neighborhood areas include the perimeter of Winder and adjacent unincorporated areas.”

Julie Sellers, an attorney for the applicants, wrote in a letter to the city that the site plan has been “significantly modified” following input from the city last summer.

“There is a demand for additional housing in the Winder area,” Sellers wrote. “The property has historically been under-utilized and largely undeveloped. Having vacant property does not benefit the county or city and instead creates a loss of potential increase for the government’s tax base. In addition, the housing demand in the area is underserved with a lack of new construction homes.”

At the Dec. 17 planning board meeting, Sellers said the homes would be built on larger lots and have a minimum of 1,800 square feet for single-family ranch-style homes and a minimum of 2,200 square feet for two-story homes, with all homes including a minimum 500-square-foot, two-car garage. The development would also include a community recreation area that would consist of a pool, community lawn and children’s play area.

The city’s planning staff recommended approval of the requests with several attached conditions — including that the developer extend, upgrade and provide water and sewer infrastructure connections to the properties in compliance with city regulations and remove all dilapidated buildings and materials being stores outside within 60 days of the annexation.

Still, planning board members recommended denial of the request, contending that they did not have enough information on the revised proposal, including input from the county and school district.

After the public hearing and work session on the requests and other agenda items, the council will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12 for its voting session. While the council has held work sessions on the first Monday of each month and voting sessions the next night, starting this year, the body has switched to holding their work sessions the Thursday before the first Tuesday of each month. Those dates were pushed back a week in January due to the New Year’s holiday.

Thursday’s meeting is scheduled to take place at the Winder Community Center, 113 East Athens St., but people can also join the meeting by phone or via Zoom. The toll-free numbers to call are 877-853-5257 or 888-475-4499. The meeting ID is 815 4100 4194, and the password is 961614. The Zoom link is available on the meeting agenda on the city’s website.


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Barrow among counties that received threatening election email

The Barrow County Sheriff’s Office had deputies posted at each of the county’s eight polling locations Tuesday after the county officials received a threatening email in the lead-up to the Jan. 5 runoff election, where both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats and a Georgia Public Services Commission seat were on the ballot.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies are investigating the email, which apparently was part of a coordinated series of threats sent by a person or persons seeming to be part of a right-wing organization to officials in Barrow and at least nine other counties across the state, including neighboring Jackson County. The individual or group threatened to blow up polling places and inflict violence upon anyone who doesn’t support overturning the presidential election results in Georgia to favor outgoing President Donald Trump and referred to anyone who voted for any of the candidates in the runoff “our greatest enemy.”

Barrow County elections director Monica Franklin said she received the email and forwarded it to Sheriff Jud Smith, and deputies were posted at each precinct. Franklin said Tuesday afternoon there had been no significant issues around the county, either with suspicious activity or voting issues.

The profanity-laced rant listed several hashtags that are affiliated with right-wing social media and conspiracy sites and took aim at numerous politicians and elected officials from both major parties.

GBI director Vic Reynolds told an Atlanta television station that the bureau was working to determine whether one or multiple people sent the threats and whether they live in Georgia, elsewhere in the U.S. or are foreign actors.

Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs noted that most or all of the counties identified as receiving the threats, including Barrow and Jackson, are Republican-leaning or typically vote solidly Republican and suggested that the threats were intended to suppress Republican voter turnout.

The threats come amid high tension throughout the 2020 campaign and the Senate runoffs in Georgia, where the winners of the two seats will determine party control of the chamber.

As for the presidential election, Trump himself has called the results “rigged,” including his narrow loss to President-Elect Joe Biden of a little less than 12,000 votes in Georgia. On Saturday, Jan. 2, Trump made an hour-long phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demanding that he overturn the state’s results and “find” him enough votes to change the outcome in his favor. Two separate recounts and an audit after the election have confirmed Biden’s victory. The call, which was recorded and released to media organizations, has sparked controversy and calls for officials to investigate Trump for potential criminal wrongdoing.

Raffensperger and his office have repeatedly pushed back against the president’s assertions, and the Trump campaign has either lost or had dozens of lawsuits dismissed in courts in Georgia and around the country.

The message called the elections “rigged” and made lewd remarks toward Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Raffensperger, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence, all of whom are Republicans.

Republican incumbent senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were referred to as “corrupt RINOs” and a vile racial slur was directed at Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Georgia and voting rights activist.

The author or authors of the email also referenced the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

“This country was founded on righteous war, and if this is what is required of us to defend our very democracy, we will step forward,” the message read. “We will hit every poll site, government office and beyond until every RINO is out of office and Trump stays where he f_cking belongs.”


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Public help sought in identifying statutory rape, kidnapping suspect

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Barrow County Sheriff’s Office are seeking help from the public in identifying a man wanted for questioning in connection to a May 2020 incident in the county that involved kidnapping, statutory rape and aggravated child molestation.

The GBI released a sketch of the white male this week but did not have any age information available. He may drive, or previously had access to, a white SUV, authorities said.

Anyone with information is asked to call the GBI Athens office at 706-552-2309. Anonymous tips can be made via the GBI tip line at 1-800-597-8477 or online at https://investigative-gbi.georgia.gov/gbi-tip-line.


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Schools plan to reopen next week

Despite the continued massive surge in coronavirus infections, including locally, Barrow County School System superintendent Chris McMichael said the district plans, for now, to have all of its schools open when students return for instruction next week.

McMichael told the board of education during its Tuesday, Jan. 5 work session that — as of Tuesday night — the district remained at adequate staffing levels to open all schools to in-person instruction Monday, Jan. 11, when the new semester begins. School staffers will return Friday, Jan. 8, for a planning day. As has become custom, McMichael stressed to the board and the public that the district’s course could change at any time based on conditions.

“We’re in fairly good position,” McMichael said. “We do expect this is going to be a very uncertain time over the next several months. There is some light at the of the tunnel, even though (the rollout) has been a little slower than we anticipated. We’ll do our absolute very best to give as much notice (about any changes).”

The school district has planned to enact “targeted” closures when individual schools reach insufficient staffing levels, or in the event major outbreaks occur within the student body at those facilities. Winder Elementary School was closed to in-person instruction the final week of the first semester before the district went on winter break because the school did not have adequate staffing due to COVID-19 issues.

Barrow’s approach has differed from some surrounding school districts that have implemented actions and instruction decisions on a district-wide basis, and several surrounding districts are beginning January either one 100-percent virtual or hybrid schedules. But McMichael said the district plans to continue with its current approach and said the district’s virus mitigation measures, including a mask mandate from the start of the academic year, have helped.

“We feel like targeted closures are the best way to go,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to close down where things are going well. …It’s well worth it to keep our kids in school as long as we possibly can.”

OTHER BUSINESS

In other business Tuesday, the board:

•approved a three-month extension of COVID sick leave for employees through March 31 after the program expired Dec. 31. The extra three-month period is an extension of the deadline for employees to use any of their remaining 80 hours of COVID-related leave.

•approved, following a closed session, the superintendent’s personnel report, which included two principal retirements. Karen Dowis at Bramlett Elementary School and Jacquelyn Robinson at Holsenbeck Elementary School are retiring at the end of the school year.

•heard a recommendation to award a security camera installation services contract to Adapt to Solve of Winder in the amount of $37,162. The district has 279 replacement and 156 new security cameras to install in 13 schools. The item will be voted on during the board’s Tuesday, Jan. 12 meeting.

•heard a recommendation to purchase network switch equipment from MXN of Woodstock in the amount of $437,000. Of the amount, 80 percent will be funded by the federal e-rate program, and 20 percent will be funded by the district (projected at $87,400). In related items, the board also heard recommendations to purchase wireless networking equipment from MXN in the amount of $31,648 and UPS equipment from SHI in the amount of $53,330. The same 80-20 split between federal and district funding would also be applied to those purchases. All three items will be voted on at the board’s meeting next week.

•heard a recommendation to utilize Superior Commercial Cleaning for custodial support along with the district’s current Primero staffing. The anticipated cost for the remainder of fiscal year is $150,000. The item will be voted on at next week’s meeting.


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