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As coronavirus cases near 1,000 in Barrow, hospital officials continue to stress mask-wearing, social distancing

As the number of coronavirus cases in Barrow County closed in on 1,000 Tuesday, officials with Northeast Georgia Health System and Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow continued to stress the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing and avoiding large gatherings.

As of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily 3 p.m. update Tuesday, there had been 979 cases and 32 deaths from COVID-19 among county residents since the outbreak began, with nearly a third of the cases and five deaths coming in the last two weeks. From July 21-28, 181 more cases and two deaths were confirmed by the department, including 37 confirmed cases Tuesday.

The grim spike across Georgia continued Tuesday as well, as another 4,293 confirmed cases pushed the state past 175,000 total and 54 more reported deaths raised the death toll to 3,563. An average of 3,762 cases were confirmed in Georgia per day July 21-28, as the cumulative total of cases in the state has more than doubled in the past month with the percentage of positive tests also increasing.

The effects of the spike continued to be felt across Northeast Georgia Health System — which is seeing its highest hospitalization levels since April — as officials reported that 173 patients positive for COVID-19 were being treated across its four hospitals and other facilities Tuesday morning (the highest total since the system’s daily public reporting began in early April) and another 75 patients were awaiting test results. Those numbers included three positive patients at NGMC Barrow with seven more awaiting results. Dr. John Delzell, the vice president of medical education for NGMC in Gainesville, said roughly a third of the system’s recent tests of patients have returned positive.

In comparison to the current numbers, the system was treating 55 positive patients at the end of June — with 13 others “under investigation” for COVID-19 — while there were no positive patients at NGMC Barrow, which at the time was in the middle of a three-week stretch without any positive cases.

Overall, 1,414 patients with COVID-19 had been discharged by the health system while 154 had died as of Tuesday.

Concerns throughout the state have continued over crowded hospitals, and recent daily “situation reports” by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency have indicated there are no critical-care beds available in Region E, which Barrow County is part of (Tuesday’s report listed one available). Still, Delzell said NGHS is managing its capacity across its facilities, adding that NGMC Barrow had 71 percent of its beds full as of Tuesday.

All of the NGHS critical-care beds are at the Gainesville and Braselton campuses, which are actually in GEMA’s Region B. Delzell said while Barrow County residents who are in need of critical-care beds go to hospitals all around, the majority are likely being sent to NGMC Braselton in south Hall County, where there were 42 patients positive for COVID-19 and nine more awaiting results as of Tuesday morning. Some of the COVID patients at NGMC Barrow are treated in emergency-room beds, he said.

GEMA listed 16 critical-care beds available in Region B as of Tuesday, and NGHS has benefitted from a state-installed, 20-bed mobile unit at NGMC Gainesville as well as mobile tent areas for patient overflow at both Gainesville and Braselton, officials pointed out.

And while the severity of symptoms in patients is wide-ranging, Delzell said the system’s primary concern right now remains the volume of cases in the community.

“As more patients test positive, that leads to more people requiring hospitalization, which leads to more requiring critical care and ventilators,” Delzell said. “That’s really our biggest challenge in taking care of them because there is a limit to what we have available.”

The rising numbers, the statistics that as much as 25 percent people with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and the challenges the state faces in building a robust contact-tracing program make it all that more critical for people to follow public health guidance to try to stem the spread of the virus, officials said.

“The more people who are out and about and in close proximity to each other, the more the numbers are going to increase,” said Dr. Rishi Sareen, medical director of the emergency department at NGMC Barrow. “One of our big focuses has been urging people to wear masks, be sanitary, wash their hands and keep social distancing. Just by wearing a mask, you can prevent a lot of the person-to-person transmission.”

Large gatherings continue to be a major area of concern for medical professionals, and at least two large gatherings were planned in the county this week. After the Barrow County School System canceled tentatively-planned traditional graduation ceremonies for Winder-Barrow and Apalachee high schools amid current conditions, parent groups organized alternate ceremonies, which were scheduled to be held Wednesday and Thursday at Innovation Amphitheater and were expected to draw as many as 500 people each night. Mask-wearing, social distancing and temperature checks were among the mandated measures set to be implemented by the event-management company for the amphitheater in compliance with Gov. Brian Kemp’s most recent executive order outlining coronavirus restrictions.

The ceremonies come on the heels of a graduation ceremony for the Bethlehem Christian Academy Class of 2020 at Bethlehem Church earlier this month, where most people were seated closely together and a majority did not wear masks.

Even with preventative measures in place, everyone should be cognizant of the risk level of attending large events right now, Delzell said.

“The more people socially distance and the more mask-wearing there is, the less the risk is. But it doesn’t eliminate it entirely,” he said, adding that the beginning and end of events, meetings and other functions are when people may be most vulnerable to being exposed.

“It’s the time before and after, when people are sort of talking to each other and moving closer together,” he said. “It’s that whole social part up that ends up being the biggest risk.”


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Barrow deputy receives Hice Headliner Award from congressman’s office

Georgia 10th District Congressman Jody Hice’s office recently presented its monthly Hice Headliner Award to Deputy Barry Chandler, an investigator with the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office, after a woman he had assisted with a sexual assault case nominated him.

The congressman’s office presents an award each month to a citizen in the 10th District who “goes above and beyond to help their neighbors and strengthen our community.”

“Deputy Chandler was brought to my attention by a local resident, who experienced a sexual assault and reported it to the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office,” said Congressman Hice, whose office produced a YouTube video highlighting the story. “One can only imagine how difficult that experience must be, but in her words, ‘He treated me respectfully, professionally, and with compassion. Each and every interaction took me one small step closer to personal healing.’ Deputy Chandler investigates a variety of crimes in his role at the sheriff’s office, and his colleagues confirm that he serves the community with compassion and kindness.”

In the video, the woman says she was a victim of a rape and talks about going to the sheriff’s office last year to find out more information about reporting it and feeling uncertain at first. She said Chandler’s demeanor from the outset helped her gain confidence.

“He walked in and was easy-going and exuded this calm that I desperately needed, because I was terrified,” she said, adding that Chandler has continued to be supportive of her in subsequent interactions. “Every time he has said, ‘I believe you. I believe in you.’ And he has pushed me into believing in myself and into a path of asking for the help that I really needed.”

“The important part of this is to be able to do right by the victim, to understand that they’ve got a story and to recognize they’ve come to us for a reason — whether it’s to seek justice or just help,” Chandler said. “We just need to be there for them to listen to what they’re telling us and act accordingly and do the best we can by the law.”

To view the full video, go to Hice's official YouTube page. 

To nominate a person for Hice Headliner Award, contact Jessica Hayes with the congressman’s office at Jessica.Hayes@mail.house.gov.


Barrow News-Journal office to close due to virus

The Barrow News-Journal is temporarily closing down its office in Winder.

"Most of our journalists are working from home due to the COVID virus," said co-publisher Mike Buffington. "It doesn't make sense to maintain an office when it's not being used."

The office has been closed to the public since March when the virus pandemic began.

Most of the newspaper's interactions with the public now are online or by phone, Buffington said.

"The ability to deal with subscriptions, classified ads and other business-related issues through our website has greatly reduced the need for people to come into a physical office," he said. "We've seen that trend in recent years, but the virus has stopped virtually all in-person traffic."

Editor Scott Thompson works from home when not attending meetings or other events in Barrow County and does page production at the newspaper's printing plant in Jefferson one day a week. He can best be reached at sthompson@barrownewsjournal.com. 

Ad sales representative Susan Treadwell also works from home when she's not talking to advertisers in person. She can best be reached at streadwell@barrowjournal.com. 

Stringers and part-time employees have always worked from home, sending in photos and news article via email.

"Technology over the last 10 years has really changed how newspapers are produced," Buffington said. "The virus has forced us to really look at that and to adapt our systems so that more work can be done remotely without requiring a physical office."


News
Funeral held for Barrow resident, Franklin Co. deputy killed in line of duty

A law enforcement-led funeral procession and services were held in Winder and Bethlehem on Saturday, July 25, for a Barrow County resident and Franklin County sheriff’s deputy who was killed in the line of duty earlier this month.

Deputy Bill Garner, 53, was responding to and assisting people involved in a single-vehicle car crash on Interstate 85 around 7 p.m. July 19 when another vehicle traveled into the median after the driver lost control and hit Garner, killing him, according to the Georgia State Patrol.

Abdulhafiz Tawfik Abdullahi, 21, of Lawrenceville, has been charged with first-degree vehicular homicide in Garner’s death.

Garner had a 22-year career in law enforcement and had also spent time with the Jefferson Police Department, Norcross Police Department, Duluth Police Department, Braselton Police Department, Pendergrass Police Department, and the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office prior to joining the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.

A memorial service was held for Garner Saturday afternoon at Bethlehem Church. Prior to the service, a funeral procession with a law enforcement escort began at Smith Funeral Home, traveled westbound on Atlanta Highway into Winder, turned south on Highway 81, east on Highway 316 and then north on Christmas Avenue to the church.

Garner’s family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations in his name be made to Canine Pet Rescue of Dacula.


News
Parent groups plan graduation ceremonies for Barrow high schools

Members of the Winder-Barrow and Apalachee high school classes of 2020 will get a chance to walk across the graduation stage after all — at least some of them.

After Barrow County School System officials last week canceled the traditional ceremonies it had tentatively scheduled for the schools this week — as coronavirus cases continued to spike locally and across Georgia — groups of parents from both schools quickly organized alternate ceremonies at Innovation Amphitheater next to the school system’s Sims Academy of Innovation. The ceremony for the Winder-Barrow graduates was set for 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 29, and the Apalachee ceremony will be held at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 30.

Strict protocols will be in effect, organizers said, including a requirement that all attendees wear masks, socially distance and be seated at least six feet apart. Guests will also be limited as the maximum capacity for the events will be 500 people each night. Golden Productions, the event manager for the venue, set the parameters in compliance with the state’s current coronavirus restrictions and will be enforcing them, organizers said.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s most recent executive order outlining the restrictions still requires that public gatherings of more than 50 people be prohibited unless at least six feet of space between each person can be guaranteed at all times. It also lays out numerous operational requirements for “non-critical infrastructure” businesses such as performance venues like the amphitheater to adhere to. Mandatory temperature checks, hand sanitation stations and other measures will also be in place.

After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of all of Georgia’s public schools in March for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, the Barrow County School System opted to hold “virtual ceremonies” on the originally-scheduled graduation dates, and faculty at the schools hand-delivered diplomas to the graduates at their homes. District officials had also hoped to hold the traditional ceremonies this week, if conditions warranted. But as cases have continued to rise, they determined it would not be safe to do so and that, with the prospect of at least 2,000 people at each high school stadium, virus-mitigation measures would be difficult to enforce.

Still, the decision last week prompted strong backlash from several parents and graduates, but superintendent Chris McMichael said he met with some of the parents and the district informally assisted with the alternate ceremonies, including helping to secure the venue. While the district is not officially sanctioning the events, McMichael said he and other officials are “OK with it” and the measures that will be in place. He said he, the schools’ principals and other representatives from the district plan to attend.

The ceremonies are not expected to draw all of the 437 Winder-Barrow and 411 Apalachee graduates from the classes. Around 150 AHS graduated had confirmed their plans to attend as of Monday’s deadline. An exact figure for the WBHS ceremony was not available.

The number of graduates who do attend will dictate the number of guests each graduate is allowed. Those who aren’t able to attend will be able to view the ceremonies on a livestream via Vimeo and Facebook.

For all information on the ceremonies, graduates and family members can go to the Facebook groups “Winder Barrow Class of 2020 Seniors and Parents” and “Apalachee High School Class of 2020 Parents and Students.”