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Two cases confirmed in Braselton

Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton is treating two patients who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The Northeast Georgia Health System announced the update late March 15.

Hospital staff are not releasing any details about those patients, citing privacy laws.

“We’re not releasing any other details about the patient due to privacy laws at this point,” said Sean Couch, director of public relations and marketing.

“It’s important to note, though, that the CDC guidelines for any person who is concerned they may have been exposed to COVID-19 – in any place at any time – is the same. If they develop a fever and symptoms such as cough or difficulty breathing, they should call their doctor's office or an urgent care clinic for advice about where they should go for treatment.  If their caregiver determines they need to be tested for COVID-19, the caregiver will coordinate testing.”

As of press time, the state reported 121 cases of coronavirus. Locally, there are seven confirmed cases in Gwinnett County, one in Hall County and one in Barrow County.

EXTRA PRECAUTIONS IMPLEMENTED

Hospital leaders are assuring area residents that NGMC is taking extra precautions to keep patients and visitors safe.

“Our physicians, nurses and other staff are following all guidelines from the CDC to provide the best possible care,” says Anthony Williamson, president of NGMC Braselton. “That includes keeping the patient in a negative pressure room, wearing personal protective equipment and following all recommended cleaning procedures to help keep the patient and all others in the hospital safe. People in our community should continue coming to NGMC Braselton for care as they need it.”

Specific precautions include limiting the entrances for NGMC patients and visitors. Hospital staff are also screening all patients and visitors for COVID-19 before they enter the facilities.

“These simple screening questions will help us protect all of our patients, visitors and employees as we try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” said Supriya Mannepalli, MD, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control for NGMC. “If a visitor is suspected for COVID-19, we will provide them with next steps to follow for testing.”

The hospital is also reviewing scheduled, elective surgeries and notifying patients if those surgeries have been cancelled.

“If you have concerns about your scheduled surgery, please contact your physician’s office,” hospital leaders state.

Hospital cafeterias remain open, but the dining areas are closed.

“That means patients, visitors and employees may purchase food to take back to waiting areas, patient rooms, break rooms, etc.,” the hospital said in a news release.

For a list of open entrances, updated visitation limitations and other information, visit www.nghs.com/covid-19.


The bath tissue aisle was vacant at Publix Super Market at West Jackson Crossing, Hoschton, as customers stock up during Coronavirus pandemic.


Virus fear leads to closures, new protocols

In an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, many communities, including the Braselton area, are shutting down schools, sporting events and public gatherings.

Starting on Thursday, March 12, a cascade of national and state events led to a number of quick decisions by officials to try and slow a potential virus epidemic.

One result has been that area grocery stores were slammed throughout the week with many staple goods being in short supply.

Area school districts have closed temporarily, along with the University System of Georgia and other area schools. Earlier this week, Governor Brian Kemp ordered all public schools (K-12 and colleges) to close until the end of March.

Civic and political groups have cancelled most upcoming events.

Braselton area neighborhoods have limited large gatherings.

Many churches have moved to online services.

And local governments have largely scaled back operations, from library program cancellations to municipal court closures.

See a list of closures on the BraseltonNewsTODAY.com website.

THINGS MOVING FAST

The situation surrounding coronavirus is changing rapidly.

On Friday, March 13, the Town of Braselton and City of Hoschton announced minimal changes to their operations. Both said at that time they were implementing additional cleaning in buildings.

But all that was changed by Monday, March 16.

Braselton

Braselton announced Sunday (March 15) that it will keep its buildings open, but asks visitors only come when necessary.

"...we ask that you limit visits to necessity and avoid visits if you feel unwell or may have been exposed to anyone who is unwell. During this time, we hope that customers will still be able to get quality service by working with staff by phone, email and of course utilizing the town's website at www.Braselton.net," town leaders stated.

The town is encouraging customers to pay for utilities either online, through the drive-thru or dropbox.

Additionally, municipal court fines can be paid online and all courts have been cancelled and rescheduled as indicated on both the town's home page and the Municipal Court page of its website, town leaders state.

The town is also taking extra precautions for its police officers (see related story).

Hoschton

Meanwhile in Hoschton, the city announced Monday morning (March 16) that all offices are closed to the public. City Hall staff is available via phone and email during the normal business hours of 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., but the doors will remain closed.

The city released the following contact information:

•Utility payments — online at www.cityofhoschton.com or placed in the black drop box in front of city hall.

•Water payment questions, new water service or trash pickup — contact kbutler@cityofhoschton.com or call the office at 706-654-3034 during business hours.

•Water emergency —contact bday@cityofhoschton.com.

•Permits can be called in ahead of time at 706-654-3034 to schedule pick-ups and drop offs at the front door of City Hall. Additional permit questions can be sent via email to kbutler@cityofhoschton.com, town leaders state.

•Train depot rentals, open records requests or events — email info@cityofhoschton.com.

•Business license or any other general questions or concerns regarding the City of Hoschton email jkidd@cityofhoschton.com.

“Thank you for all of the Hands On Nashville donations we have already received! At this time the City of Hoschton will no longer take donations in office but we do encourage you to visit www.hon.com to continue to help those affected by this tragedy,” Hoschton leaders state.

INCREASED RESTRICTIONS AT SENIOR FACILITY

Many local senior centers have been closed amid the growing threat of the virus' spread.

And a local senior living facility is placing restrictions on its visitation policy.

The Oaks at Braselton recently announced it will restrict visitation and recommend its residents not leave the community unless medically necessary.

"Due to the recommendations from state and federal authorities, we will be restricting all visitors into the community unless deemed medically necessary until further notice," The Oaks said in a social media post Friday, March 13. "We also recommend that residents do not leave the community unless it is medically necessary to avoid being exposed to those who have not been screened for signs and symptoms of the Coronavirus."

Leaders of The Oaks said limited visitation may be allowed under special circumstances. Those visitations will need to be approved and scheduled by the executive director in advance, The Oaks said.

"At the moment, we cannot say with any certainty how long these restrictions will be in effect," The Oaks added. "We will continue to monitor the situation closely and evaluate information provided by state and federal agencies in order to inform future decisions. We're aware of the challenges this decision presents to many families and appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate this quickly evolving and unprecedented situation together.

"We are committed to providing alternative means of communication. Our team will coordinate remote communications via video and audio calls between residents and family as requested. We will also ramp up our Facebook postings."

For updates, visit https://hubs.ly/H0nzZxL0.


Weeks withdraws from mayoral race

Former Hoschton City Council member Hope Weeks has withdrawn from the city's mayoral race.

Weeks submitted a signed letter to city hall on Thursday, March 12, announcing her withdrawal from the upcoming mayoral election.

"It is with deep sadness that I announce my withdrawal from the election for mayor of Hoschton," Weeks wrote in the letter. "I am proud of the opportunity the citizens gave me to serve Hoschton as a council member. During my time as a council member, I always tried to do the right thing for Hoschton and its citizens, even when the right thing wasn’t necessarily popular."

Weeks cited a "barrage of attacks" against her as the reason for her withdrawal.

"I was excited about the possibility of continuing to serve the community as mayor, but unfortunately, the barrage of attacks against me have become untenable. In the end, my family and my job have to be my priority, leaving withdrawal from the race as my best course of action.

"My sincere thanks to all of you who have supported me. I am very disappointed that it’s come to this, but I pray the citizens of Hoschton will come together and continue towards the betterment of our city."

With Weeks' withdrawal, it appears her opponent Shannon Sell will be the new mayor of Hoschton. The city has ordered the cancellation of its mayoral race.

Ledbetter said he's spoken with Sell and looks forward to working together and putting the recent turmoil in the past.

"The tension in the city between these candidates' supporters is at boiling point," Ledbetter said. "I’ve reached out to Shannon and we are excited to work together and put to bed all this bickering and name calling that’s been going on since last March. We are looking forward to the election boards decision and are ready to work together whatever the outcome may be."


BOE says Lawson meets residency standard

It appears James Lawson will be a candidate in the upcoming Hoschton City Council special election.

In a reversal of its decision last month, the Jackson County Board of Elections and Registration voted 3-1 on March 16 to deny a challenge against Lawson's residency. Larry Ewing was the lone opposition.

Lawson is the owner of Lawson Funeral Home in Hoschton and says he lives in an upstairs apartment in the funeral home. During the new board of elections hearing, Lawson’s attorney Stanton Porter, presented additional evidence to show that Lawson has resided at the funeral home for over a year (the requirement to run for council).

Among the newly-presented evidence were: Receipts and photos from the renovations for the apartment; documents from a moving company that relocated the Lawsons’ belongings from their former home to the funeral home in 2018; and evidence that Lawson got much of his credit card and personal mail delivered in Hoschton.

Porter also presented sworn affidavits from a number of Lawson’s neighbors and community members who said he lives at the funeral home, along with social media messages between Lawson’s wife and their son, in which she updated him on the progress of the renovation while he was deployed.

The BOE vote came after a lengthy silence, when no board member spoke up to make a motion. Ultimately, board chair Eric Crawford made a motion to reject the residency challenge, arguing enough evidence had been presented to show Lawson met the residency requirements.

Lawson is set to face Raphael Mayberry in the May 19 election (which was postponed from March 24 given the spread of coronavirus).

BACKGROUND 

Hoschton's former mayor Theresa Kenerly and mayor pro tem Jim Cleveland came under fire last year for racial comments made surrounding the city's hiring of a city administrator.

Faced with a potential recall, both Kenerly and Cleveland resigned late in 2019.

The remaining city council members at that time — Hope Weeks and newly-elected members Shantwon Astin and Adam Ledbetter — were forced to go to court to allow the council to continue functioning with three council members.

Kenerly's and Cleveland's resignations also forced a special election to fill those vacated seats. Lawson and Mayberry qualified to run for Cleveland's old seat.

Meanwhile, Weeks and Shannon Sell qualified to run for the mayor's position.

Because Weeks qualified for mayor, she had to resign her seat on the Hoschton City Council. (Weeks has since withdrawn from the mayoral race. Sell will be the new mayor of Hoschton.)

That left only two council members remaining, making the council essentially non-functional until the special election.

Shortly after Lawson qualified, a challenge was filed with the Jackson County elections board, arguing Lawson didn't meet the residency required to hold office in the City of Hoschton. Petitioners argued Lawson lives at a mountain home in Rabun County, citing that Rabun County address is listed on his driver’s license and that’s where he filed a homestead exemption.

The elections board held a hearing on the matter in February, and ultimately voted to uphold the residency challenge during that meeting, disqualifying Lawson as a candidate.

The Hoschton City Council then swore in Mayberry to the vacant council seat. That move allowed the council to again function with three council members.

Shortly after, Lawson filed an appeal in the Superior Court of Jackson County — claiming the elections board had acted improperly by discussing his case behind closed doors and discussing issues unrelated to his residency, including his motivation for running for office. Judge Joe Booth ordered a stay of the board's decision until a March 11 hearing.

FROM THE COURT HEARING

During the March 11 court hearing, both Porter and the county’s attorney Chris Hamilton argued their sides over Lawson’s residency requirements. But much of the focus was on the February Board of Elections and Registration meeting and whether the hearing was held appropriately.

“The hearing itself was not conducted properly,” said Porter.

He added the board made a mistake when it went into closed session — without a motion or the legal authority to do so.

“They go into executive session for 38 minutes,” said Porter. “That’s a long time to discuss something that — to me — should be very open and public.”

But Hamilton argued that no vote was taken in the closed session.

“There was no indication that any official action was taken in that (closed) meeting,” he said.

When pressed by Judge Booth, who cited concerns over the closed meeting, Hamilton ultimately conceded.

“I will concede that the better angels would probably say: Don’t go into executive session,” said Hamilton. “We’re dealing with public servants. Public servants make mistakes.”

Judge Booth noted he didn’t think the board acted in bad faith.

But he ultimately vacated the elections board's decision and remanded it back to the board to reconsider (which is what it did March 16).

“I do find that there was a violation of the open public meetings statute…,” said Judge Booth. “I find no exception in the code that permitted what’s called an executive session in excess of 30 minutes. Frankly, we don’t know what the board talked about. I believe that that sort of discussion…is precisely what the public is interested in hearing.”

UNKNOWNS FOR THE FUTURE

It’s not clear how the election board’s decision will impact the City of Hoschton and whether Mayberry's swearing in is now void.

The city may also be forced to return to the court, to allow the council to continue functioning with a three-member council (Astin, Ledbetter and Sell, when he’s sworn in) until the May 19 elections.


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First responders take extra precautions amid coronavirus spread

Braselton area first responders are taking some extra precautions when dealing with the public.

“Everybody’s going to be wearing latex gloves when they go on a call,” said Braselton Police Chief Terry Esco.

The Braselton Police Department will also be limiting traffic stops to only the necessary ones. Officers will also keep their patrol cars wiped down and each patrol car has latex gloves, wipes and hand sanitizer.

The police will also be putting some distance between themselves and the public, when possible.

“We’re going to try to get people when they call to meet us outside if possible,” said Esco.

Esco said they’ll continue responding to assist medical personnel when requested, but will keep some physical distance during the calls when they can.

“That’s basically all we can do at this point,” Esco said.

The department will also be taking some reports over the phone when appropriate.

The changes come amid two positive COVID-19 cases at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton.

“We know it’s getting closer,” Esco said.

The department has been attending various pandemic preparation meetings over the weeks and trying to stock up on supplies the officers need.

“It’s just been hard trying to find some of this stuff,” said Esco. “We’ve been lucky to get some of the stuff that we needed.”

Esco said they’ve ordered masks for their officers, but they’ve had a hard time getting hand sanitizer. He said they ultimately got some from a local supermarket and the West Jackson Fire Department.

Esco added the BPD has been working closely with the WJFD.

Fire chief Ben Stephens said his department created a pandemic plan in 2011 and they’ve been implementing portions of it since Friday, March 13.

“Part of the plan included extra training/fit testing of N95 masks and each member has been issued a mask,” he said, adding they began stocking bulk quantities and other items as part of the pandemic plan.

They’ve also begun social distancing practices and have cut down social events and visits to the fire station.

Dispatchers are also screening EMS calls to determine which of those incidents the WJFD should respond to.

“In the event that we are dispatched to an EMS incident that exhibits flu-like or endemic-like symptoms, only one firefighter will enter the premises to limit exposure,” according to the WJFD pandemic plan.

Stephens said they also have cleaning protocols in place to protect crew members.


Voting suspended for March 24 election

All voting, including early voting, for the March 24 election has been suspended due to the Coronavirus crisis.

The Presidential Preference Primary will now be held on May 19 along with local and state primary elections. Early voting restarts on April 27.

The move by the state to suspend early voting and postpone the presidential primary election will also impact local issues, including a special election set to fill a vacant Hoschton City Council seat.

The state made the decision to suspend the election late Saturday, March 14.

"Those ballots already cast will all be counted during the May election....not before," said Jackson County elections director Jennifer Logan. "All elections on the ballot are moved to the May ballot. Those who have already voted in PPP will have a ballot for just May 19 elections; all voters who have not voted in the PPP will have the PPP and other special elections on their May 19 ballot."


News offices closed to public

Mainstreet Newspapers’ offices will be closed to the public until further notice.

Offices in Jefferson, Danielsville, Winder and Homer are closed in response to the Coronavirus crisis.

Those needing to contact the newspaper may do so via email, telephone or the papers’ websites. Drop boxes are also available at each location.

Many of the newspapers’ reporters and editors are working from home when possible.

Watch for updates on our website at mainstreetnews.com.

To check on subscriptions and other services, call 706-367-5233.

Editor Alex Buffington may be reached at alex@mainstreetnews.com.


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How bad is COVID-19?

Just how serious is the COVID-19 virus?

There appears to be differing opinions on the matter as some people are gripped by fear while others seem to think the virus is little more than another kind of flu.

That question came up at the Jackson County COVID planning meeting March 12 where GEMA Area 1 coordinator Don Strength appeared to play down the seriousness of the virus.

"Common senses, we've lost it — that's why we are where we are right now," he said.

Strength said that people seeing images of emergency tents in California on television is "driving this."

"Not to minimize what we've got, I'm just saying the media isn't helping us any," he said.

Earlier in March, Strength supported a similar comment on social media that said, "The news media should not be your trusted source for any disease outbreak."

IBUPROFEN

When one person asked at the meeting what makes the Coronavirus worse than other types of epidemics, such as the H1N1 virus of a few years ago, Strength said, "We live in a different world today... I almost answered that question, but I thought better of it."

But a representative from the Northeast Georgia Health District seemed to have a different view.

"The scariest thing about it is that it's new," she said.

She said that while other Coronaviruses have been around for a long time and that this strain affects people in some ways similar to the flu, the COVID-19 is a "novel strain" with no vaccine available and no natural immunity built up in the population.

But Strength appeared to suggest that COVID-19 wasn't much different than the seasonal flu.

"Let me ask you this question: So someone is tested positive, what treatment are they given?"

After the health department official outlined the general response for those who test positive, Strength said, "Ibuprofen, Ibuprofen is used. What do you use for a headache?"

Strength said that the situation was almost a panic.

"The unknown is driving — I hate to use the word panic — but I'm afraid we're just that side of it, really," he said. "You're going to get cases in Jackson County; we're going to get cases in every county in the state. It's gonna happen. We have flu cases in every county in this state. It's going to happen.... those of us who do this kind of stuff for a living have got to stay calm and help folks through it and maybe 60 to 90 days from now, we'll be looking back on this and use it as a learning tool for the next thing that comes along, and there will be a next thing."

But a private citizen who attended the meeting pushed back on the idea that COVID-19 was like the flu.

"This ain't the same as the flu," he said.

NOT MUCH DATA

Testing for the virus in the U.S. has been very low compared to many other nations, so getting accurate data on how the virus is hitting people is spotty. While the data is incomplete, it suggests that the mortality rate for COVID-19 is much higher than the seasonal flu.

That's especially true with older people who have underlying medical problems.

More details about the virus are available from the CDC at:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html


News
Coronavirus stories free to public online

The Braselton News will offer its coronavirus stories free to the public.

The News recently transitioned to paid circulation for its print edition and implemented a paywall on its online stories.

That online paywall will be suspended on coronavirus stories for the next few weeks.

Given the seriousness and spread of COVID-19 and the potential impact it could have on our area, we want to offer a resource for reliable news and updates to community members — including those who can’t afford a subscription or do not want to subscribe.

Online stories can be found at BraseltonNewsTODAY.com.

If you have trouble viewing coronavirus stories on our website, email at alex@mainstreetnews.com.