Nearly 3,400 more COVID-19 cases and 28 more deaths were confirmed in Georgia on Tuesday, including 15 in Barrow County, as the coronavirus continued its recent resurgence around Georgia and much of the country.
As of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily update at 3 p.m. Tuesday, there had been 123,963 cases confirmed around the state since the start of the outbreak — with more than 7,000 confirmed since Sunday — while the official statewide death toll rose to 3,054.
Roughly a third of Georgia’s cases have been confirmed in the last two weeks alone, while more than 200 deaths have been reported during that same span.
There were 2,741 people confirmed to have COVID-19 who were hospitalized across the state as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s daily situation report.
In Barrow County, 137 cases have been confirmed in the past two weeks, bringing the total to 660, while 27 county residents have now died from COVID-19.
The rising numbers in Barrow and surrounding counties have had an impact on Northeast Georgia Health System as well, which reported Tuesday morning that 73 patients positive for COVID-19 were hospitalized across its hospitals and another 47 were awaiting test results. There were two COVID-19-positive patients at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow in Winder and 12 at NGMC Braselton. The numbers of patients awaiting test results at those hospitals were not available Tuesday.
A total of 131 people have died from COVID-19 at the system’s four hospitals since the start of the outbreak, while 1,157 have been discharged.
Ventilator usage across the system also increased to 41 percent Monday and Tuesday — the highest it had been since May 18 and up from 27 percent two weeks ago. Statewide, ventilator usage was at 40 percent, while only 39 percent of the state’s total emergency room beds and only 16 percent of its critical-care beds were available, according to GEMA’s latest data. In Region E, which includes Barrow, only seven out of 70 critical-care beds were available as of Tuesday afternoon.
As the virus continued its spike in the region, NGHS announced tighter visitation controls system-wide, including no ER visitors at NGMC Barrow. The new visitation rules, available at nghs.com, were set to take effect Wednesday morning.
No surgeries, procedures or appointments at NGHS hospitals are being postponed at this time, officials said. The system has also rebuilt the the emergency mobile medical units outside its Braselton and Gainesville hospitals to handle more capacity and plans to open, within the next week, a new 20-traditional bed unit at NGMC Gainesville that will be used for treating patients confirmed to have COVID-19, officials said.
The latest increases came as Gov. Brian Kemp faced a deadline on whether to extend current coronavirus restrictions that were set to expire Wednesday, relax them or impose tougher ones.
Kemp in late June extended the current restrictions for two weeks and continued to order the state’s elderly and “medically-fragile” populations to “shelter in place.” The statewide public health emergency declaration remains in effect for now through Aug. 11.
Kemp to this point has resisted calls from public health experts and his political opponents to follow other governors and halt steps toward fully “reopening” Georgia’s economy and mandate mask-wearing in public. Several of the state’s larger cities — including Savannah, Athens and Atlanta — have enacted public facial covering mandates, and Atlanta also has reverted back to previous economic restrictions, leading to a public sparring match between Kemp and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Kemp, whose previous executive order stated that local governments could not impose tougher restrictions, has called the cities’ actions “unenforceable.”
Around Barrow, there has been no significant push among local government leaders to pass mask mandates or other tougher restrictions.
Coaches are typically creatures of habit, and that has made the day-to-day uncertainty during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that much harder to take for Apalachee High School head football coach Tony Lotti.
Lotti has described himself as so meticulous that he typically plans all team activities several months in advance — all the way down to the order and flow of team picture day. But he, along with all the other coaches around the state the last few months, has had to sideline his normal routines as questions continue to swirl around the upcoming Georgia High School Association fall sports season.
Will games be played?
Will the seasons start on time?
And will the competitions be held in front of spectators?
The latest indications from GHSA officials are that all those things will happen. But with the volatility of the situation and a recent new surge in coronavirus cases across the state and much of the entire country, the current plans could be put on hold or upended at any time.
“(The start of football season) is coming fast and we’re still limited in what we can do and what we’re doing,” Lotti said last week. “For me, having to go week by week has been more awful than anything. I can’t even plan for next week now because I don’t know for sure what they’re going to say we can and can’t do.”
“It’s definitely been very different,” Ed Dudley, Lotti’s counterpart across town at Winder-Barrow High School, said of the altered summer schedule. “But the participation has been good. The players have had a great attitude and the parents have been able to roll with it. The coaches probably take it harder than anyone. I think the unknown and always having that hang over your head is the hardest thing to deal with. Everybody wants to know when the people in charge are going to make their decisions, but they have to use the latest information available to them.
“Everything’s got to be done around the health and safety of the student-athletes.”
While school systems’ approaches to reopening for the 2020-21 academic year — informed by guidance from the state department of education and the CDC — have varied around the state, Barrow County plans to start traditional classes Aug. 4 as scheduled, with an option for students to enroll in digital learning while still being eligible to participate in athletics and various other extra-curricular activities. However, district officials have stressed that the plans are not set in stone, and the campuses could be shut down again if the virus reaches a more substantial spread level in the school or around the community.
How the school system chooses to maneuver through the pandemic will largely dictate the activities of the athletic programs at Apalachee and Winder-Barrow, along with the junior-varsity programs being offered this fall at the new Barrow Arts and Sciences Academy (softball, volleyball, cross country, cheerleading).
As the pandemic began uprooting everyday life for people around the country and the world back in March, schools and high school sports were not spared. After an order in early April by Gov. Brian Kemp mandated the closure of Georgia’s public schools to in-person instruction for the remainder of the academic year, the GHSA canceled the remainder of its spring sports season.
GHSA executive director Robin Hines told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently that the association plans to move forward with starting all fall sports on time but that it wouldn’t hesitate to shut down athletics if the situation worsens or in the event of another order by Kemp.
“I think we’re still optimistic about starting on time, but I’m a little more heavily concerned now than I was the previous couple of weeks,” said Al Darby, the former Winder-Barrow principal who is now the Barrow school district’s chief administrative officer for athletics and student affairs. “I would say the optimism has gone down some and the red flags have gone up significantly. I think it could go either way. We could see a delay. There are things that are being talked about on a constant, daily basis, and we’ve got a compact window of time to make these decisions. But we just don’t have any definitive answers yet.”
Even with a recent surge in infections around the state, the GHSA relaxed some restrictions on team activities as of July 6, but there are still some limitations in place. Teams were allowed to begin holding intrasquad activities (such as 7-on-7 competitions in football) last week and are now allowed to have groupings of up to 50 players at once during a practice. But they are still not allowed to scrimmage other schools as of earlier this week.
Under the current restrictions, football teams are also limited in what competitive activities they can realistically do because they are still not allowed to wear helmets, even with the start of mandatory practice less than two weeks away and full-padded practice still currently slated to begin Aug. 1.
Lotti said one of his primary concerns at the moment is getting his players adequately conditioned to play in the summer heat and making sure they’re properly-hydrated, especially with the GHSA rule that athletes for now have to bring their own personal water bottle to workouts and practices.
“We’re only going to have a few days in pads before we play a game,” said Lotti, whose team’s Aug. 7 scrimmage against East Jackson (postponed from the spring) remains on the schedule as of now, followed by another preseason tune-up against on Commerce on Aug. 14 before their regular-season opener against Winder-Barrow on Aug. 21. “The heat always stays at the forefront of my mind and it’s something we’re constantly monitoring. We’ve gotten a good taste the past few workouts of how muggy it can be this time of year, but it’s still a different story when you get out there and get the pads on.”
When the school closures forced the cancellation of spring practice and prohibited access to weight facilities, Lotti and Dudley had to switch to limited virtual communication with their players through Google Classroom and home workout programs.
“I think most of our guys are in pretty good shape, but along with COVID, you’ve got those classic battles of heat acclimation and conditioning,” Dudley said. “I’m pretty confident that our guys will be ready to play whenever the season starts. But everyone is obviously monitoring this situation very carefully, and I think, as coaches, we need to be even more flexible and be able to change on the fly.
“We just have to make the best of this situation. You can lose sight as high school coaches of what the real mission is if you’re not careful. We’re supposed to be using sports to build the kids up as young men outside of the classroom. I think football provides that value to individuals.”
Darby said while he was surprised at the latest relaxations by the GHSA, given the current virus outlook in Georgia, the athletic programs around Barrow County have been strictly following the protocols and exercising due caution. He said two cross-country runners — one at Apalachee and another at Winder-Barrow — recently tested positive for COVID-19 and were still under quarantine as of last week. Neither one had any known contact with their teammates after their exposure, he said, adding there were no other known infections or pending test results among the district’s other athletic teams as of last week.
“We are continuing to sanitize and clean thoroughly and following all those recommendations,” Darby said. “We’re trying to be consistent across the board, and I think we’ve done a good job communicating with the public. We want to make sure we build that confidence and trust among the parents and guardians that we’re doing everything we can to keep their kids safe.”
But as the start of fall sports rapidly draws near, the question still remains: Will the student-athletes be competing in front of their family members, fellow students and fans? And if so, what, if any, crowd restrictions — whether imposed locally or at the state level — will be in place?
That’s an issue weighing heavily on Barrow County school officials’ minds with the annual Battle of Barrow football game, which generally draws a packed-out crowd at the AHS and WBHS stadiums, slated to kick the year off.
“It’s something we’re all thinking about: how can we enforce social distancing and try to keep people safer,” Darby said. “None of these measures have been hashed out at the GHSA level. But the timetable is moving and the window’s closing. And the spike (in cases) is happening.
“There are just so many moving parts. It’s like playing a game of chess.”
Lotti is hopeful that the Wildcats and Bulldoggs will play in front of a full crowd at R. Harold Harrison Stadium just over five weeks from now and that it will be a positive experience for Barrow County.
“Everyone has been through a lot since March. This thing has really taken a toll on all of us,” he said. “We’ve always talked to our kids about the hygiene side of things when we’ve dealt with things like the flu because all it takes is one kid to get it and it can run through your team. Now we’re emphasizing to our guys the importance of wearing a mask, not going out in public unless you have to and keeping a distance between each other when possible, and I hope everyone else will follow that.
“I would hope that the decision-makers (on whether to allow spectators at games) look at this from all angles. Obviously, you want to try to keep everybody safe, but you also have to decide what is the overall best thing for the kids and the community. Maybe we require mask-wearing. Maybe we spread people out. There are a lot of options there.
“But in my opinion, if we’re in school, we should be playing. And after we’ve grown more isolated from each other, football is a way of bringing the community back together.”
Barrow County government was hit with a cyber-attack over the weekend that caused a disruption to “certain county operations,” county officials said Monday, July 13.
Officials said the network intrusion was carried out by “sophisticated cyber-criminals” but that they were not aware of any unauthorized disclosure of personal data or financial information.
“County technology experts have been working diligently with nationally-recognized cybersecurity experts to restore normal operations as soon as possible,” officials said in a news release. “Barrow County places the utmost importance on its network and system security.”
County manager Mike Renshaw due to the ongoing investigation, the county could not disclose Monday any specific details concerning the focus of the attack.
“When additional information is available, we will be in a position to share more details,” Renshaw said.
Winder city administrator Mandi Cody said the city took some of its systems shared with the county offline as a precaution to preserve their integrity. She said the action could temporarily affect telephone and email availability for some city employees.
County officials said that the cyber-attack was not related to issues stemming from a Friday, July 10 storm that knocked out power in several areas of the county and caused the 911 communication center to lose power. The center’s backup generator allowed the center to remain operational, but emergency calls were temporarily re-routed to Jackson County 911. That issue was resolved within a few hours, and no emergency calls were lost or not answered, officials said.
Barrow County manager Mike Renshaw will remain with the county for now after talks for him to become the new manager for the Village of Palmetto Bay, Fla., fell through Monday night.
Renshaw had been selected by the village’s council over two other finalists for the top administrative position late last month after a six-month search. But he said Tuesday that contract talks had broken down and he was no longer interested in the position.
He had been scheduled to begin work in the incorporated village in Miami-Dade County on Aug. 1.
Renshaw, who has been with Barrow County since May 2016, was also recently a finalist for the city manager position in Las Cruces, N.M., — that city’s council selected another candidate for the job — and has been a finalist or candidate for several other positions over the last couple of years.
He said Tuesday he is not currently under consideration for any other positions.
Renshaw said he had told the Barrow County Board of Commissioners about his candidacy and kept them informed on the negotiations with Palmetto Bay.
“I’m happy here, but if an opportunity arises that looks interesting and would be a challenge, that’s something I will look at,” Renshaw said. “I’ve got a good working relationship with the board here and that’s crucial to any manager’s tenure.”