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COVID cases countywide hit record numbers; school district numbers spike

Barrow County set a new daily high in coronavirus cases Thursday, Dec. 10 — with 68 more cases confirmed countywide by the Georgia Department of Public Health in a 24-hour period as the numbers around the state, northeast Georgia region and the U.S. continued to skyrocket.

The sharply increasing case totals have pushed local hospitals to capacity and were reflected in a spike in the Barrow County School System’s numbers, which led to an elementary school being closed to in-person instruction for the remainder of this week.

In its latest daily 3 p.m. update prior to press time, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, the DPH reported 4,860 confirmed cases of COVID-19, along with another 2,787 antigen cases — bringing the cumulative totals to 484,152 confirmed cases through PCR tests and 69,843 through antigen tests, also commonly known as rapid diagnostic tests. The state had a record 6,126 confirmed cases Thursday. DPH also confirmed another 35 deaths Tuesday, raising the recorded death toll to 9,250 as of the latest update.

In Barrow County, 63 more cases were reported Tuesday, raising the cumulative total in the county to 3,891 and increasing the seven-day rolling daily average to a high of 50 cases. Sixty county residents have died from COVID-19, according to the state’s data. The positivity rate on tests also remained high at 21.9 percent on Tuesday with a seven-day rolling average of 20.2 percent, the highest average since the onset of the pandemic.

HOSPITALS FULL

And as hospitalizations have also surged, Northeast Georgia Health System is also continuing to bear the brunt of that. The system reported a daily-record 265 confirmed-positive patients across its facilities Monday, Dec. 14 and 248 on Tuesday with 52 additional patients awaiting test results. The seven-day rolling average for test positivity at NGHS facilities was just under 24 percent as of Tuesday morning.

The system’s Tuesday morning numbers included eight positive patients at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow in Winder and another 52 at NGMC Braselton, where many Barrow County patients with more severe cases are typically sent. NGMC Barrow had no available beds Tuesday morning, and NGMC Braselton had only three ICU beds available. Meanwhile, the system’s flagship hospital in Gainesville had only four ICU beds available.

A total of 480 patients had died from COVID-19 at NGHS facilities as of Tuesday — including 16 since Thursday — while another 3,488 have been discharged, about 160 in that same five-day period.

SCHOOL NUMBERS SPIKE

While the latest surge in Barrow hasn’t impacted the county’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities like it did this spring — when 17 residents at Winder Healthcare and Rehabilitation died and more than 75 others became infected — the Barrow County School System on Thursday reported its worst week by far in COVID cases and announced Monday that it was closing Winder Elementary to in-person instruction for the remainder of the final week before the district’s winter break due to a staffing shortage brought on primarily by the virus. The rest of the district’s schools remained open to in-person instruction as of Tuesday afternoon.

According to the district’s latest weekly update, 31 students tested positive from Dec. 3-9 — roughly 30 percent of the total since the start of the academic year in August — and 10 more were quarantined as the result of a “probable case,” while 629 were quarantined due to direct contact with someone with a positive or probable case. The district’s previous weekly high for confirmed student cases was 12 the week before, but that only accounted for three instructional days due to the Thanksgiving holiday.

In addition, 13 school system employees tested positive from Dec. 3-9, 18 were quarantined as probable cases, and 46 additional staffers were quarantined as a precaution due to direct contact. The district has reported 96 positive tests among its roughly 1,850 employees since pre-planning for the school year began July 27.

According to the district’s latest school-level numbers, 199 students were kept out of or sent home from school for COVID-related reasons Dec. 9 — including 48 at Bramlett Elementary, 35 at Westside Middle and 31 at Winder Elementary. And 192 were kept out or sent home on Dec. 7 — including 61 at Apalachee High, 38 at Russell Middle and 26 at Statham Elementary. Winder-Barrow High had 38 impacted on Dec. 8. Apalachee fared the worst in the past week with 182 students impacted, more than half of its cumulative total of 317.

Students and staff can return anywhere from 7-10 days after their last exposure depending if they meet certain sets of criteria.

In an update Friday, Dec. 11, district officials reiterated that there are currently no plans for districtwide closures between now and Friday, Dec. 18, when the schools enter their winter break or when students return starting Jan. 11. Instead, officials will continue to monitor the situation at each individual school and enact “targeted” closures or modified schedules in the event of staffing shortages or class- or grade-level outbreaks.

Officials noted that some school districts in surrounding counties have announced temporary districtwide closures or other modifications based on current spread level and staffing issues, but stressed that Barrow remains at sufficient staffing levels — except for Winder Elementary — to continue offering in-person learning.

“(But) as we all know, that could change at any time,” officials said. “Please ensure your family has a plan if your child needs to move to distance learning.”

Since bringing students back in the classroom in September, the district has implemented mask mandates and other mitigation measures that officials maintain are keeping spread levels at schools reasonably down, and they have urged employees and students to stay home if they aren’t feeling well.

“The data we gather through our extensive contact tracing consistently shows that the majority of cases being counted each week do not originate in our classrooms,” officials said. “The data indicates that students and staff are not getting the virus at school, and they are not passing it along to others at school. Instead, people are contracting the virus outside of school.”

Since the district began reporting its data to the DPH in September, eight “clusters” have been identified at schools — meaning two or more people who tested positive for COVID-19 showed symptoms within 14 days of each other, had contact with each other did not share a household and would not be considered “close contacts” of each other in another setting outside of school or school-related functions. The district’s latest reported cluster was Nov. 13, prior to Thanksgiving break.

“While we are closely monitoring each school every day in the service of keeping our schools open, our mission is grounded in the fundamental value of in-person learning for students,” officials said. “At a time when students have missed a lot of instruction, we want to ensure the academic well-being of all of our students. We also realize that school plays a vitally important role in the social and emotional well-being of our children. It is a place for children to play, feel safe and connect with their peers. It provides security and helps to reduce anxiety.

“We thrive when we are together. We will strive to keep our school buildings open as long as possible while keeping the health and safety of our staff and students as the number one focus.”

VACCINE

Georgia received its first shipments of the approved Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Monday at two locations along the Atlantic coast, where frontline nurses were scheduled to receive their first of a two-dose series. Additional shipments were expected to arrive later this week at facilities in other parts of the state, including metro Atlanta, according to a DPH news release.

“Because initial COVID-19 vaccine supply is limited, DPH is following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and prioritizing healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities for vaccination. Vaccine will be given through closed points of dispensing or PODs,” DPH officials said. “These sites include public health clinics, hospitals, long-term care facilities, pharmacies, etc., and are only accessible to individuals in defined priority groups.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was expected to give Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine emergency use authorization this week as well. Assuming the vaccine is authorized for use by FDA, shipments of the Moderna vaccine should begin arriving in Georgia next week, officials said.


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Little looks forward to new role as interim county manager

Walton County native Kevin Little chose not to seek re-election to a sixth four-year term as chairman of the county’s board of commissioners this year, but he also wasn’t ready to retire from a career in local government. So in October, he put out his resume to surrounding counties, including Barrow, and let it be known that he was interested in a managerial or departmental position if an opening should arise.

Such an opportunity emerged just to the east recently when Barrow County manager Mike Renshaw accepted a similar position out west, and Little was offered the interim county manager position and accepted. The board of commissioners approved the hiring of Little, effective Jan. 1, following a closed session at its Tuesday, Dec. 8 meeting and also accepted the resignation of Renshaw after more than 4 ½ years with the county.

Renshaw’s last day of work with the county will be Jan. 12, and he will then take over as general manager of the Highlands Ranch Metropolitan District in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, an unincorporated community of a little more than 100,000 people just south of Denver. The board of directors there approved the hiring of Renshaw at a Dec. 3 meeting.

As BOC chairman in Walton County over the last 20 years, Little has essentially been in a dual role as elected official and top administrator and has held various leadership titles around Georgia and the northeast region of the state, including being a past president of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and chairman of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission. He is a 1984 graduate of Monroe Area High School and holds a bachelor degree in public administration and political science from Georgia College and State University. Prior to his time as chairman, he began his professional career as an engineer technician for the Georgia Department of Transportation and was then director of traffic operations and assistant road superintendent for Walton County.

“I thought that being a county manager might be sort of the next step for me, and when this opportunity came about in Barrow County, that felt like a good step to take,” Little told the Barrow News-Journal Thursday, Dec. 10. “I’m a lifelong Walton Countian going a couple generations back, and I thought something might arise nearby at some point. Barrow and Walton are similar in their growth patterns and in a lot of other aspects. I’m just really appreciative of the board of commissioners for reaching out and giving me the opportunity. I’m going to be doing a lot of studying from home this month and am looking forward to getting rolling right after the first of the year.”

Barrow County's agreement with Little is an open-ended, "at-will" one with no time frame of service, though he will be obligated to submit a 30-day notice to the BOC to leave the position unless the parties agree otherwise. Little will be paid an annual salary rate of $115,000 and will also receive a $3,100 signing bonus, according to the agreement.

"We are very fortunate that Kevin Little is available and willing to serve in the role of interim county manager for Barrow County," BOC chairman Pat Graham said. "He is extremely qualified, and very well-respected within the region and state. We look forward to a smooth transition."

Graham said the commissioners will be working with county human resources director Elizabeth Bailey on the process of advertising the position and timeline for selecting a replacement for Renshaw.

"I expect (that process) may begin during the first quarter of 2021," Graham said.

Little will have the opportunity to apply to be the full-time county manager and said he “would definitely be interested in” doing so. He said he expects managing the continual population growth and increased service demands on Barrow County will be his biggest tasks entering his new position.

“I’m going to be analyzing the growth patterns and checking on our land-use plan. We expect the growth to keep coming, so we want to make sure we continue to plan wisely for that,” Little said. “And then hopefully we’re in a position to upgrade our infrastructure to accommodate that if it’s not already there.”


BOC rejects rezoning request for large subdivision in Statham

A proposed subdivision of more than 300 single-family homes in unincorporated Statham was shot down by the Barrow County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Dec. 8.

The board voted 5-1 — with commissioner Joe Goodman opposed to chairman Pat Graham's motion and commissioner Rolando Alvarez absent — to deny a request by Manor Restorations to rezone 95 acres at 575 Wall Rd. between State Route 316 and Atlanta Highway and change the future land-use map character designation property from Rural Reserve to 316 Innovation Corridor in order to build 318 single-family homes. Manor Restorations, which has been active in rezoning and development requests around the county in recent years, had proposed that a little more than 20 percent of the homes (67) be age-restricted to 55 years old and up.

The BOC voted 4-2 at its Nov. 11 meeting to table the request in order to get more information about sewer capacity for the proposed development but ultimately went along with the county planning staff’s recommendation to deny based on the position that the request was not in keeping with the county’s future land-use map.

Shane Lanham, an attorney for the applicants, has contended in public meetings that a change in land-use designation was appropriate and that the homes would complement future industry and businesses along the 316 corridor, giving prospective new workers places to live. The county planning commission did not make a recommendation on the request at its October meeting, but none of the panel’s members telegraphed their support of it.

The request also drew pushback from nearby residents and the Barrow County School System, with concerns ranging from the impact on traffic and existing infrastructure, to the price point and square footage of the proposed homes, to the population impact on local schools.

The proposed development was just one of several either currently being eyed or in the works in Statham.

Similar issues, particularly regarding traffic and infrastructure and the potential impact on schools, have also been raised within the city limits of Statham, where the city council has recently considered a request by Macas Development and property owners to rezone 75.5 acres south of Atlanta Highway along Moore Drive in order to build 197 homes. The council held a public hearing on that request Dec. 3 and was scheduled to hold a vote on it at its Tuesday, Dec. 15 voting session (See barrownewsjournal.com and the Dec. 23 edition for coverage of that meeting). Last month, the council approved the final plat for the 76-lot Lakes of Statham subdivision south of Providence Road, and building is expected to begin next year.

In another item on the Dec. 8 BOC agenda, commissioners voted for a second straight month, at the applicant’s request, to table a request to rezone 18.15 acres at 725 R.D. Mack Rd. and change the property’s future land-use map designation in order to build an age-restricted community with 27 single-family homes, 126 townhome/condominium units and an estimated 12-15 executive suites at the front of the proposed development. The primary applicant has requested the tabling due to health issues.

That request garnered the recommendation of approval from the planning commission and the support of the school system on the basis that the homes would be age-restricted and the price points on the single-family homes would be higher, ranging from the high $400,000s to low $500,000s. However, the request has drawn opposition from representatives of the homeowners association at The Georgia Club due to concerns with traffic at the 316/Craft Road intersection.

OTHER BUSINESS

Among other business at the Dec. 8 BOC meeting, commissioners:

•approved a request by Harvey Lokey to rezone 68 acres at 1363 Finch Rd., Winder, for a 57-lot subdivision. The county planning commission recommended approval of the request last month, agreeing with staff’s recommendation that the development would be consistent with the future land-use map. The request drew opposition from neighboring residents who were concerned about the traffic and environmental impacts and the condition of Finch Road. Goodman noted the road is slated for improvements. Tripp Reynolds, who was representing the applicant, noted that the applicant would still have to go through engineering and permitting steps before being allowed to break ground.

•approved a request by Stephen Mobley to rezone 40.1 acres at 558 Union Church Rd., Winder, for a 38-lot subdivision.

•approved a Fiscal Year 2021 budget adjustment of more than $122,000 to add two full-time employees and one part-time employee at the tax commissioner’s office in an effort ease an increasingly burdensome workload and replenish staffing levels closer to where they were pre-Great Recession. The county plans to use excess local-option sales tax revenues it has collected to cover the costs.

•approved the allocation of more than $1.8 million in federal coronavirus relief money for improvements and maintenance along Pleasant Hill Church Road in Winder, remediation of several dirt roads around the county and additional paving of parking lot areas around Victor Lord Park.

•approved a sub-grant agreement with the Atlanta Regional Commission for a transportation study along with State Route 316/University Parkway corridor in Barrow between the Gwinnett and Oconee county lines. The board approved last year a resolution in support of the grant application. The ARC is funding 80 percent of the estimated $350,000 project cost and the county will contribute the remaining 20 percent, or $70,000, using money from its reserves. The county will now issue a request for proposals for consultant services.

•approved an aerial photography contract with Pictometry International for the company to perform two aerial imagery flights around the county over the next six years, with the first set for next month. The contract is for $11,654 per year for the first three years and $12,230 annually for the three years after that. The cost will be split between the tax assessor, E911, fire and planning and community development departments.

•approved the purchase of a used 2019 aerial pumper apparatus for the Braselton area for Barrow County Emergency Services in the amount of $820,000. The bulk of that cost will be paid for with federal CARES Act money.

•approved the purchase of replacement cardiac monitors from Master Medical Equipment in the amount of $218,430.

•approved a $94,500 contract with Po Boy’s Plumbing for work associated with the State Route 211/Old Hog Mountain Road roundabout project. A water main needs to be relocated for the future intersection improvements.

•tabled until January a vote on a proposal from TSW for planning services related to updates to the Highway Corridor Overlay, character areas and future land-use map in order to get more information about the proposed scope of work.

•approved the purchase of replacement playground equipment at the leisure services center in the amount of $83,231 from Astra Construction Services.

•approved a change in BOC meeting times from 7 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month starting in 2021. Jan. 12 is the first scheduled board meeting of the year.

•recognized BCES Capt. Glen Cain for being named Fire Official of the Year from the Georgia Fire Sprinkler Association.


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Winder council postpones rezoning requests near 11/53 split

The Winder City Council has postponed action on a pair of rezoning requests near the split of highways 11 and 53 in order for city staff to work with the developers on their proposed projects.

One of the requests, by Roxeywood Development and Barrow Investment Group, would be to rezone 49.4 acres at 436 Gainesville Hwy. and build a 78-home subdivision called “Stone Haven” on 42.3 of the acres. The remaining acreage would be separate commercial parcels.

The property was part of a much larger proposed development that the council shot down in 2018, when it denied a request from another developer to rezone 70 acres and build up to 220 homes.

The new request was recommended for approval by the city’s planning board earlier this month, but council members did raise some concerns about traffic impact, particularly with a future shopping center anchored by Publix planned across Gainesville Highway (Highway 53).

A representative for the applicant said the developer would have to work on permitting with the Georgia Department of Transportation and estimated it would be at least year and a half before construction could begin if the request is approved.

The council also postponed a rezoning request for 1.4 acres at Jefferson Highway (Highway 11) and Amherst Drive right at the 11/53 split for a convenience store to be built. Council members had reservations about approving the request without having more concrete information on a future roundabout that GDOT has planned for the intersection.

There is no set time for when the cases will come back before the council, but they will have to be re-advertised at least 15 days prior to the council taking action, city attorney John Stell said.

OTHER BUSINESS

Among other business at its Dec. 8 meeting, the council:

•approved a bid from Regions Bank to assist the city with refinancing bonds issued in 2012 with a loan of up to $8.125 million at a 1.49-percent interest rate. The bonds are set to mature in December 2029. Principal payments will be made every Dec. 1 starting in 2021, and interest payments will be made twice a year starting June 1. The net present value savings for the city is projected at $831,529, while the actual cash flow savings will be $888,048.

•approved a request to rezone property at 71 West Candler St. from B-1 Neighborhood Commercial to Downtown Zone in order for the applicant to construct four live/work units in a row house style with office usage and a two-door garage on the lower floor and a residence on the second and third floors of each unit. Each unit would be 3,000 square feet. The units will be geared toward professionals such as attorneys, architects, engineers, real estate agents, etc.

•approved a one-year contract to reappoint Stephen W. Nicholas as municipal court judge for 2021. Nicholas will be paid $1,500 per month.

•approved a one-year contract to reappoint Larry Steele as municipal court prosecutor for 2021. Steele will be paid $450 per day, with any additional hours beyond scheduled sessions set to be billed at $125 per hour.

•approved the city’s 2021 holiday schedule — New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 18), Memorial Day (May 31), July 5 for Independence Day, Labor Day (Sept. 6), Thanksgiving (Nov. 25-26), Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

•approved the council meeting schedule for 2021. Work sessions will now be held the Thursday before the Tuesday voting session, typically the first Tuesday of each month. The council’s first scheduled meeting in 2021 is a Jan. 7 work session.


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