Barrow County set a record for most daily reported coronavirus cases Friday, Dec. 4, and Northeast Georgia Health System reported that no more beds were available at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow in Winder on Friday morning, as the latest nationwide COVID-19 peak continued to slam northeast Georgia.
On the same day that the Georgia Department of Public Health reported a daily record of 5,023 cases around the state, 52 new cases were confirmed in Barrow County — surpassing the previous high mark reached on May 10 — while the seven-day rolling average of new daily cases reached a high of 38.1 on Monday, Dec. 7. There have now been 3,520 cases confirmed in Barrow since the start of the pandemic, and 59 county residents have died, with the most recently-reported death on Nov. 30.
In another sobering development, NGHS has continued to report record numbers of COVID-positive patients across its facilities, including a high mark of 209 on Saturday, Dec. 5. As of Tuesday morning, Dec. 8, the system had 208 patients positive for COVID-19 and another 58 who were awaiting test results.
Those Tuesday numbers included nine COVID-positive patients at NGMC Barrow, tied for the most in a day since May 19. Only four of NGMC Barrow's 38 beds were reported available Tuesday morning, while there were no ICU beds available at NGMC Braselton, where most people with critical COVID cases in Barrow are typically transported.
NGHS officials have warned that the numbers of people in need of care and testing will continue to increase in the coming weeks. And even with promising news that prospective vaccines are nearing federal approval and officials believe distribution work could begin later this month, CDC director Robert Redfield said last week that this winter could be “the most difficult in the public health history” of the U.S.
“Both the percentage of tests coming back positive and the number of people who need to be admitted to the hospital have been steadily climbing all month,” said Dr. Clifton Hastings, chief of medical staff for NGHS, in a news release Dec. 1. “We’re headed for a new peak and the only question is, how high will this peak be?”
As of Tuesday, the seven-day rolling average for positive results out of tests administered at NGHS facilities was 20.75 percent, remaining at the highest daily levels since mid-August.
“I want everyone to understand we’re in a bad situation,” Garey Huff, a family doctor with Northeast Georgia Physicians Group and an outgoing Barrow County Board of Education member, said during a board meeting Dec. 1. “Twenty percent (test positivity) is dangerously high. (The lack of available ICU beds across the system) is frightening to say the least. That means to me that we need to double our efforts to flatten this curve.”
The Barrow County School System is also continuing to feel the effects of the pandemic and reported Thursday, Dec. 3, that 12 students across the system tested positive between from Nov. 30 through Dec. 2 (a weekly high since the district began its weekly reporting in September), six more were quarantined as a “probable” case and 135 more were kept out of or sent home from school as a precaution due to direct contact with someone with a positive or probable case. Six employees also tested positive during that same timeframe, while 10 were quarantined as a probable case and 37 were quarantined due to direct contact.
Barrow County has spent more than a week back in the “red zone,” but district officials have said they are not planning district-wide school closures between now and the end of the first semester of the academic year Dec. 18. In-person students are scheduled to return to campuses from the three-week winter break Jan. 11.
“We’re not at a point of panic, but we are watching it closely,” superintendent Chris McMichael told the school board at its Dec. 1 meeting. “I’m not saying (a districtwide closure) is totally off the table between now and Christmas, but we’re going to do our absolute best not to have that happen.”
Instead, district officials are monitoring each individual school and will look at “targeted closures” if conditions warrant. In a Dec. 1 update posted to the district’s website, officials said examples could include a three-to-10-day switch to distance learning for a class or grade level if there is an outbreak at a school. A temporary school closure could also be triggered if a school is left without adequate staff due to illness or quarantines, and the district could consider hybrid schedules to further reduce class sizes.
“We’ll do our best to let families know if that’s coming,” McMichael said. “There is no playbook for this. We are just working through it every day. I am concerned, I think we’re all concerned, about the spread level jumping up the way it has. But I think we’re all going to hold tight and keep moving forward.
“Hopefully things will start turning around and coming down. I’m not super-optimistic about that at this point, but one thing this thing has taught us is we don’t know what’s coming next. We just have to be able to react as quickly and as nimbly as possible.”
Since students began returning to school campuses for instruction in September, the district has implemented mask mandates and other various mitigation measures, and some 140 staffers have been trained through a Johns Hopkins University contact-tracing program in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. As of this week, 70 of the district’s more than 14,000 students had reported positive test results since mid-August. Seventy-nine of the district’s roughly 1,850 employees have had positive tests reported since July 27.
“Chris McMichael and his team have done an excellent job managing the COVID pandemic that we’ve experienced in our community,” Huff said. “I think we’ve had a pretty good, if not great, experience with keeping the number of cases among our students and staff low. That being said, we’re in a very bad situation right now. I think he and his full staff understand that.”
The latest COVID numbers for the area come as various holiday-season events are still planned.
While the City of Auburn canceled its annual “Sounding off the Christmas Season” event that was scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 6, the City of Statham went on with its annual tree lighting and downtown event Saturday and the City of Winder still plans to hold its 72nd annual Christmas parade Saturday, Dec. 12, with modifications. The parade will be a “reverse” parade where the floats and performances will be stationary and people will be able to drive by in their vehicles. The change was made in keeping with Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive orders and prohibition on large public gatherings where social-distancing cannot be maintained.
Winder also has a ribbon-cutting planned at the newly-renovated Jug Tavern Park on Saturday, and all people who attend that and the parade and other festivities that evening, as well as any other upcoming public events, are strongly encouraged to wear masks.
“We know people are tired of hearing about wearing masks, washing hands and watching their distance,” Hastings said in the NGHS news release. “Trust me, our nurses, doctors and other staff are tired, too. But those are the only actions that can limit the spread of the virus. The entire spirit of the holidays is to think about others first and doing whatever you can to help them, so I hope everyone really takes that to heart and protects the people they love the most.”
Two people died and another was critically injured in a trailer home fire on Wages Road in Auburn on Friday morning, Dec. 4.
The two deceased victims were a 58-year-old man and 48-year-old woman, according to a news release from the Office of the Georgia Commissioner of Insurance and Safety Fire. The person who was transported to the hospital is a 70-year-old man.
Authorities had not released the names of the two deceased victims, and no further updates were available on the condition of the injured person as of Monday afternoon, Dec. 7.
According to a Barrow County Emergency Services news release, fire crews responded to the fire in the 300 block of Wages Road just after 10:45 a.m. Friday.
“Upon arrival of our crews, it was determined that there were possible victims trapped inside the home,” BCES spokesman Capt. Scott Dakin said. “The home had heavy black smoke throughout, making visibility impossible in the home.”
Firefighters made entry into the home to conduct a search-and-rescue mission and quickly found one person, who was pulled out of the home and transported immediately to a local hospital.
Crews continued to search the home for other victims and found "extreme heat and heavy smoke conditions throughout the home," according to the release.
Crews were pushed back out of the home when the roof collapsed due to the spread of the fire. Access was made through a bedroom window in order to continue the search. Two more victims were found inside the home and were found to be deceased upon being removed.
“Our firefighters faced a real challenge in conducting this search and worked hard to pull the victims from the home,” Dakin said. “They did everything possible to give the victims a chance. The loss of life is tragic and we are praying for the families that lost loved ones.”
The Fire Investigation Team responded to the scene to conduct an origin and cause investigation. Due to there being fatalities and injuries as a result of the fire, the Georgia State Fire Marshal’s Office also sent investigators to assist in the investigation. The investigation was ongoing as of Monday, Dec. 7.
The two deaths were the 83rd and 84th fire-related fatalities in Georgia this year, according to the insurance commissioner's office.
Even with coronavirus restrictions in place, locals will have a chance to enjoy some upcoming Christmas fun in and around downtown Winder.
The City of Winder will be hosting its 72nd annual Christmas Parade from 5-8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, in “reverse” fashion, where the floats and performances will be stationary and spectators can drive past them. The city decided on a reverse parade earlier this year to remain in compliance with the coronavirus restrictions and executive orders put in place by Gov. Brian Kemp.
The event will kick off with a ribbon-cutting at the newly-renovated Jug Tavern Park by Mayor David Maynard, the city council and parade grand marshal Joslyn Stinchcomb, the Winder teen who is recovering from a pit bull attack in July that left her hospitalized in Atlanta for nearly three months. Spectators will then be able to drive through the various locations where floats and performances will be staged at any time they choose. A map is available at www.winderdowntown.com and on “The City of Winder” Facebook page.
Masks are "strongly encouraged" for those attending the ribbon-cutting and walking around downtown.
“Grab a bite to eat downtown, do a little holiday shopping with our local small businesses, and cruise around to enjoy all of the Christmas lights, performances and music,” organizers said.
In addition to the parade, there will also be socially-distanced visits with Santa Claus at the historic train depot, a live drive-thru nativity at Winder First United Methodist Church (6:30-8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, and 5-8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12) and various performances at The Plaza at Jackson and Jug Tavern Park.
For the visits with Santa, children will be allowed to take their pictures with Santa through a fence and drop off letters.
More than 70 local businesses and organizations are participating in this year’s festivities, according to a city news release.
After a little more than 4 1/2 years in Barrow County, Mike Renshaw is stepping down as county manager to take a similar position in Colorado.
The Barrow County Board of Commissioners approved Renshaw’s resignation following a closed session at the end of its Tuesday, Dec. 8 meeting. His last day with the county will be Jan. 12. The board also approved an employment agreement with outgoing Walton County Board of Commissioners chairman Kevin Little to serve as interim county manager starting in January.
Renshaw will be the new 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 for the district approved the hire at a Dec. 3 meeting, and Renshaw's first day will be Jan. 18.
“It’s a big move geographically, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity,” Renshaw said. “I’ve got about maybe 10 more years left I want to do this line of work. Throughout my career, I’ve always looked for good fits and (Barrow County) was one in 2016. It’s been a great experience. I want to thank the board for their support and it’s been great working with all of the staff. This will be a new experience and a new challenge for me.”
Renshaw, who came to Barrow County in May 2016 from Camden County, North Carolina, has been a finalist for several jobs around the country over the last couple of years. In July, he was selected for the top administrative post for the Village of Palmetto Bay in Florida but chose not to take the position after contract talks broke down. He was also a finalist earlier this year for the city manager position in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
In Renshaw’s resignation letter to the commissioners dated Tuesday, he touted a few accomplishments during his tenure, including “the modernization” of many of the county’s processes and procedures” and the voter-approved SPLOST renewal in 2017 that has led to the expansion of Victor Lord Park, a new wastewater treatment facility and additional funding for road improvements.
“I also want to express my sincere respect and appreciation for the dedicated staff that I have had the pleasure of serving with,” Renshaw wrote. “Without their commitment to excellence and collaborative spirit, many of our accomplishments would not have come to fruition.
“It has been my honor to have had the privilege of serving you and the residents of Barrow County, and I wish you all much future success.”
Little, who will take over as interim county manager, has spent the last 20 years as chairman of the Walton County Board of Commissioners but chose not to seek re-election this year to a sixth term. He is a lifelong resident of Walton, 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. He is a past president of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG).
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 Wednesday, Dec. 9. "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 for the full-time position.
Early voting for the Jan. 5 runoff election begins Monday, Dec. 14, in Barrow County. Monday, Dec. 7, was the final day to register.
Voters will be deciding between candidates for both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats and a Georgia Public Service Commission seat.
Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue is seeking a second term and is being challenged by Democrat Jon Ossoff. Perdue narrowly edged Ossoff in the Nov. 3 general election, but failed to get over the 50-percent-plus-one threshold required to avoid a runoff.
In the other race, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler is seeking her first full term after being appointed to the seat last year and is being challenged by Democrat Raphael Warnock. Loeffler and Warnock were the top two vote-getters in the “jungle primary” special election, which featured more than 20 candidates on the same ballot in November.
A runoff election for the Georgia Public Service Commission race between Republican incumbent Lauren “Bubba” McDonald and Democratic challenger Daniel Blackman will also be on the ballot after the originally-scheduled December runoff for that race was postponed by a month to coincide with the Senate elections.
In-person advance voting will be held Dec. 14-31, Mondays through Fridays, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the county elections office, 233 East Broad St., Winder. There will be no Saturday voting, and the elections office will be closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Dec. 24-25, and New Year’s Day, Jan. 1.
Voting on Jan. 5 will be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the county’s eight precinct locations. Those are:
•Bethlehem Community Center, 750 Manger Ave., Bethlehem.
•Bethlehem Church (211 Campus), 1061 Old Thompson Mill Rd., Hoschton.
•Hmong New Hope Alliance Church, 1622 Union Grove Church Rd., Auburn.
•Covenant Life Sanctuary, 115 Patrick Mill Rd. SW, Winder.
•Barrow County Fire Station 1, 1625 Bethlehem Rd., Statham.
•First Baptist Church, 625 Jefferson Hwy., Winder.
•Winder Community Center, 113 East Athens St., Winder.
•The Church at Winder, 546 Treadwell Rd., Bethlehem.
To find your polling location, you can call the elections office at 770-307-3110, go to the county website or go to mvp.sos.ga.gov.
Barrow County is also currently accepting absentee ballot requests through 4 p.m. Dec. 31, though the Post Office will be closed on New Year’s Day.
Forms can be mailed to or turned in in-person at the elections office, emailed to email@example.com or faxed to 770-307-1054.
Absentee ballots are due at the elections office by 7 p.m. Jan. 5.
Forms and additional information can be found at http://barrowga.org/departments/elections-registration-main.aspx.