Barrow County, the City of Auburn and the Town of Braselton have issued “stay-at-home” orders for their residents, but the Winder City Council has opted not to do so but will instead keep in place emergency measures it enacted last week as local governments continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
As of press time, there were 19 confirmed coronavirus cases in Barrow County and two deaths from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. The Georgia Department of Public Health listed those as a 66-year-old male and 91-year-old female, both with underlying conditions. Statewide, there were 4,117 confirmed cases and 125 deaths as of 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 31. Another update was scheduled for noon Wednesday, April 1.
On Monday, March 30, Barrow County announced a stay-at-home order, effective through April 13, strengthening a set of measures the board of commissioners had approved Friday, March 27.
Under the new order, residents in the unincorporated areas must stay home except when conducting activities that are "essential to their own health and safety and that of family/household members, partners, significant others and pets." Those activities include obtaining food, medication and medical supplies household consumer supplies and health care services, or caring for a family member or pet in another household. People may also engage in outdoor activity such as walking, hiking, running or biking as long as they comply with "social distancing" requirements of maintaining at least six feet of space. People who work to provide essential services or essential products may leave their places of residence to carry out those activities.
The order also prohibits all public and private gatherings outside of a living unit and ordered businesses not deemed "essential" to close. The list of "essential businesses," following U.S. Department of Homeland Security guidelines, is lengthy with nearly two dozen exemptions. Among those are health care businesses; grocery stores; farms; organizations that provide food, shelter and social services to those in need; news agencies; gas stations, auto supply and auto repair shops; shipping and receiving; banks; private education institutions; plumbers, exterminators, electricians and similar businesses; laundry service providers; and restaurants that offer delivery, takeout or drive-thru service.
A complete list can be found on the county’s website at barrowga.org.
The county’s action came after Auburn and Braselton, which are both partially in Gwinnett County, enacted nearly identical stay-at-home orders Friday in conjunction with Gwinnett and all of its other municipalities.
Braselton’s order also runs through April 13, while Auburn’s runs through April 16 because the city council wants to vote at its April 16 meeting on whether or not to extend it, city administrator Alex Mitchem said.
“I know this is frustrating. It is for everyone,” Auburn mayor Linda Blechinger said in a written statement to city residents. “I certainly do not want people to suffer because of businesses being closed. We have worked very hard to bring new businesses to our community and to keep businesses open as long as possible and will continue to do so.
“This health emergency is just that — an emergency. More than anything, my desire is for each and every one of you to be safe and to not have any deaths related to the virus. It is a horrible disease.”
In announcing the county’s order, county officials had urged all of the municipal governments in the county to impose orders as well to avoid confusion from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
But the Winder council, during a called meeting Tuesday, March 31, voted 4-2 not to approve a stay-at-home order, primarily due to concerns and confusion over a lengthy list of businesses deemed "essential" and exempt from closing.
Instead, the council will continue to keep in place emergency measures it enacted last week — including a nighttime curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., a ban on dine-in service at restaurants, the prohibition of most public gatherings, and the closure of entertainment, fitness, recreation and personal grooming businesses. That ordinance expires at 11:59 p.m. Monday, April 6, but will likely be extended by the council at its scheduled work session that evening.
The Statham City Council, which already has the same measures in effect as Winder through April 6, and the Bethlehem Town Council were scheduled to hold votes on stay-at-home orders in line with the county's order on Wednesday, April 1. The results of those votes were not known as of press time.
Several Winder council members said Tuesday the proposed order has too many loopholes and would present small businesses in the community with a competitive disadvantage.
"I believe the actions we took (last week) are sufficient, and I think we would be confusing people with additional regulations and accomplishing nothing essential in regard to public health," said councilman Chris Akins, who was joined in opposition by Holly Sheats, Kobi Kilgore and Sonny Morris. "This thing is about as clear as muddy water. I think by passing this ordinance, we would be picking winners and losers. And I just don't think that's right."
Several council members made the point that Walmart on Atlanta Highway — which is in the county's jurisdiction but is covered under the "essential business" clause because it carries food, groceries and other items that make it exempt — would be allowed to remain open while some businesses in town that carry a similar product might not be.
Sheats said the order would be unfair to small businesses that have worked "very diligently" to follow "social distancing" requirements while people would be more at risk at Walmart or another grocery store. With a stay-at-home order in place, people could flock to Walmart and other stores in higher numbers as a means of getting out of the house for a bit, without actually needing groceries.
"It's a punishment to our small business owners when it doesn't guarantee public safety," Sheats said of the proposed order. "It's not that I don't want to align with the county; I do. I think it would make things much easier. ...I'm just not able to stomach this right now."
"There's a loophole to everything and people are going to find it," Kilgore added.
The different approach by the local governments in the county and others around the state comes as Gov. Brian Kemp has faced mounting calls to take stronger action and perhaps issue a statewide "shelter-in-place" order that would apply to everyone.
Critics of the governor's approach to the crisis from that aspect have contended the patchwork nature of the local measures creates too much confusion among citizens. Kemp has balked at the prospect of a statewide shelter-in-place order so far but has said that could still be an option under consideration.
The Georgia Municipal Association last week urged all of its members to enact stronger measures beyond what the governor has ordered to this point, and Winder mayor David Maynard has said the city should put tighter regulations in place.
"The fact that we're sending a stronger message (with a stay-at-home order) may encourage more people to abide by it than there are now," Maynard said. "The problem is now that people still aren't taking it seriously."
Councilman Travis Singley, who voted in favor of the order along with councilman Jimmy Terrell, said the urgency of the situation was his main concern.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Barrow more than doubled from 7 p.m. Monday to 7 p.m. Tuesday, and nearly 1,100 cases and 23 more deaths were reported around the state during that span.
"Every day, (the number of cases is) multiplying," Singley said. "There's more and more people getting this awful virus and more people dying. We've got to come up with a solution from that standpoint."
Terrell said he shared the concerns about the impact on small businesses but said the primary goal should be getting residents to follow proper precautions.
"What we don't want to do in Barrow County is overload the health care system," Terrell said.
Sheats reiterated that people should only leave their home if they need to and limit contact with others while they're out.
"I implore our citizens to treat 'essential' businesses as such and not outings," she said. "We should only be going to the grocery store and those places when it's absolutely necessary, not just when we have cabin fever."
A team of researchers at the University of Georgia are developing and testing new vaccines and immunotherapies to combat the novel coronavirus that has infected hundreds of thousands across the world.
The team is led by Ted M. Ross, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and director of UGA’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology. He has partnered with other laboratories and biotechnology companies to create new vaccines that could one day provide protection against the virus that causes COVID-19.
Scientists in his lab have already begun analyzing the viral genome to find the right targets that will prompt the immune system to create protective antibodies, and they will examine how effective those targets are in small-scale lab tests soon.
Ross has spent most of his career studying viruses and developing new vaccines and treatments to combat them, but he is perhaps best known for his efforts to develop a universal influenza vaccine that could protect against all forms of the virus and eliminate the need for seasonal flu shots.
While the lessons learned from his work on influenza and other viruses will inform his work, the coronavirus presents a unique set of challenges.
“Most people already have some immunity to influenza, but nobody has immunity to this coronavirus, which is one reason it has spread so quickly,” Ross said. “The scientific community is hard at work, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this virus, and it will take time to gather quality data.”
A successful vaccine could, however, turn the tide in the fight against the coronavirus in humanity’s favor. Widespread distribution of a vaccine would create enough herd immunity to protect most people and prevent another outbreak.
Shutdowns, travel restrictions and sheltering in place could halt the spread of COVID-19, but those actions may not be enough to eradicate the disease completely.
“It’s possible that public health interventions will help slow the spread, but we just don’t know for sure,” Ross said. “It’s also possible that this virus could circulate continuously in human populations, and that’s where a vaccine would become an essential tool.”
There is a profound sense of urgency within the scientific community to find new solutions, and many researchers are sharing data as soon as it becomes available to hasten the development of diagnostics and treatments, Ross said.
But he cautions that creating, testing and manufacturing a vaccine will take time, so it’s important for people to heed the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their state and local governments.
“Even when processes have been expedited, vaccines must go through a series of rigorous tests to prove that they are safe and effective, and that could take many months,” Ross said. “In the meantime, the best thing we can do is to follow basic preventative guidelines outlined by the CDC, because those are the best weapons we have right now.”
For more information about what you can do to protect yourself and others, visit the CDC’s website.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, on Thursday, March 26, ordered all public elementary and secondary schools in the state to remain closed through April 24. Schools will be allowed to reopen April 27, though Kemp could elect to extend the mandated closure at a later date.
"I am deeply grateful to State School Superintendent Richard Woods, the Georgia Department of Education, superintendents, and parents for keeping us informed and helping us make the right decision for our students," Kemp said in a news release. "Throughout this process, we will continue to seek the advice of public health officials, school leaders, and families to ensure the health and safety of the educational community. We ask for continued patience and flexibility since circumstances may change, but we encourage families to stay strong and follow the guidance of federal, state and local leaders in the weeks ahead."
The University System of Georgia and Technical College System of Georgia will remain closed for in-person instruction through the rest of the semester since students have already transitioned to all online learning.
The Barrow County School System had previously announced its schools would be closed until April 13. The school district is referring people to its website at barrow.k12.ga.us for the latest information on home learning, meals for students in need and other topics.
The board of education meeting on Tuesday, March 31, was held via teleconference.
While Kemp's order did not apply to private schools, Bethlehem Christian Academy announced it would remain closed through April 24 and would continue to follow the governor's recommendations.
BCA is providing regular updates on its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BCAKnights1/
Gov. Brian Kemp’s office announced Tuesday, March 31, a plan to significantly ramp up Georgia’s coronavirus testing capacity in partnership with the University System of Georgia, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and Emory University.
Upon implementation, labs will be able to process over 3,000 samples per day, according to a news release. Kemp’s office has expedited equipment purchases and was to begin ramping up as soon as Tuesday with more capacity expected in the next five to seven days, the release said.
Like the rest of the country, Georgia has been grappling with a shortage of testing supplies and lab capacity, limiting its ability to fully gauge the impact of the coronavirus and COVID-19 and how many actual cases there are. The state has also had to ration tests for people who are very sick, elderly or living in nursing homes, as well as emergency workers.
As of noon Tuesday, a little more than 16,100 tests had been administered in the state, and there were 3,817 confirmed cases and 108 deaths, according to the DPH.
"Adequate testing for COVID-19 has continued to be a top priority for the Coronavirus Task Force as we fight this pandemic," Kemp said in the release. "With this innovative partnership between state government agencies, our world-class research institutions and private-sector partners, we will be able to dramatically increase testing capacity.
"We hope this surge capacity plan will allow federal and state public health officials to gain a more complete picture of COVID-19's impact on Georgia and better inform our collective decisions going forward. We expect this plan will lead to greater testing capacity and more insight into the number of positive cases in our state.”
“Working collectively with our partners in the University System of Georgia will greatly expand our testing capacity. That means identifying more cases, getting more people into care, and protecting our communities from the spread of COVID-19,” DPH commissioner Kathleen Toomey. “This collaboration will not only provide much-needed capacity now, but it will ensure a robust state infrastructure for the future.”
Under the plan, Georgia universities will transfer their lab equipment to the Georgia State University, Augusta University, Emory and the DPH lab, according to the release.
“The increase in testing capacity is critical to Georgia’s effort to battle COVID-19 in our communities, and our institutions are working hard to make it happen,” University System of Georgia chancellor Steve Wrigley said.