Barrow County continues to lag behind both the state and surrounding counties in COVID-19 vaccination rates, and local health leaders on Tuesday, April 13, urged county residents to take advantage of readily-available supply, become vaccinated and help create a “safer and healthier” community.
“In Georgia, we are behind. I don’t care how you calculate the numbers; we are still not where we need to be,” Susan Kristal, nurse manager for the Barrow County Health Department, told local businesspeople and government officials Tuesday during the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce’s monthly membership luncheon. Kristal and Northeast Georgia Medical Center-Barrow president Chad Hatfield urged local leaders to use their voice and influence to encourage more people in the community to become vaccinated.
“I think we’re at a point now where, if somebody wants a vaccine, there should no reason they can’t get it,” Hatfield said. “There’s plenty to go around, so there should be enough supply to meet demand.”
Georgia has continued to ramp up coronavirus vaccinations and late last month expanded eligibility to everyone age 16 and up, but the state still ranks at or near the bottom in the U.S. According to the state’s website, as of Tuesday afternoon, roughly 4.8 million vaccine doses had been administered in Georgia with 3.1 million people receiving at least one dose (30 percent). Only 17 percent (1.7 million) were considered fully vaccinated. There had been 192 million vaccine doses administered nationally as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website.
In Barrow County, about 1,500 vaccine doses were administered in the past week, bringing the cumulative total to 20,753 as of Tuesday afternoon. Sixteen percent of county residents (12,480) had received at least one dose, but only 11 percent (8,610) were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to the data, putting the county behind the state average in both categories. By comparison among neighboring counties, 33 percent of Oconee Countians had received at least one dose as of Tuesday and 24 percent there were fully vaccinated. The numbers for other neighboring counties were:
•Clarke County — 23 percent at least one dose, 17 percent fully vaccinated.
•Gwinnett County — 21 percent at least one dose, 13 percent fully vaccinated.
•Jackson County — 19 percent at least one dose, 14 percent fully vaccinated.
•Hall County — 19 percent at least one dose, 14 percent fully vaccinated.
“We have some vaccine hesitancy in Barrow County that we need to talk about,” Kristal said. “We need to up our game. We need more vaccine in people’s arms. There are people around you that you influence. Find them and talk to them (about the importance of being vaccinated). Find the pockets of people that need the information and think about ways to get it to them.”
The CDC and Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday called for a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine over concerns with “extremely rare” cases of blood clotting, and the Georgia Department of Public Health announced shortly thereafter it was abiding by that guidance. Officials with those federal agencies said they are studying six cases of reported severe blood clots and at least one death among the 6.8 million Americans who have received the J&J vaccine. There have been no reported clotting issues associated with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccinations, which are continuing.
Kristal said she understands people’s desire to do thorough research on vaccines but stressed that they are overwhelmingly safe and the best means of protection against COVID-19, which has infected 31 million and killed some 560,000 Americans over the past 14 months.
“We have enough (available) vaccine in the community,” Kristal said, adding that those with questions about the vaccine or in need of one should contact the health department. “We have variants that are spreading, but we know our natural immunity is better with a vaccine. It makes us stronger and the virus has no place to live. We just want to encourage people to get the vaccine so we can at least be a community with 35 to 40 percent vaccinated, and right now we’re kind of at the bottom rung of that.
“Like you, I want my life closer back to the way it was before all of this, and there are more possibilities with that, the more people who are vaccinated.”
Hatfield said Tuesday that the area case numbers continue to show marked improvement over the peak infection and hospitalization rates in January, when Northeast Georgia Health System was averaging 350 COVID-positive patients across its hospitals and other facilities daily.
Tuesday morning, the system had 37 patients who were COVID-positive — including just two at NGMC Barrow and only 11 at NGMC Braselton — with 22 more awaiting test results, and the positivity rate among those tested at NGHS facilities was hovering around 5 percent on a seven-day average, drastically lower than the post-Christmas surge that saw those percentages sit steadily in the mid-30s.
“It’s phenomenal improvement,” Hatfield said, though he added that people should not “let our guard down.” He said questions continue to linger over whether Georgia and other southern states can avoid recent case surges seen in northern states.
The DPH confirmed 20 new cases in coronavirus cases in Barrow County on Tuesday — again, far below the winter peak in daily averages, but the most in a day since March 11 when there were 23 new cases confirmed.
In all, 8,504 cases have been confirmed among county residents since the onset of the pandemic, and at least 127 Barrow Countians have died from COVID-19.
“We have to continue to remain vigilant and diligent in maintaining our distancing and wearing our masks when we’re out in public,” Hatfield said.
Tuesday’s “COVID-19 state of affairs presentation” also highlighted various community partnerships that have formed since the pandemic began and the recent mass vaccination events, where more than 1,100 Barrow County School System employees became fully vaccinated with assistance from health department and NGHS employees.
“COVID isn’t what brought us together, but COVID helped demonstrate what we all can do when we work together,” Hatfield said. “This really shows the fabric of what this community is made of. Let’s make sure we don’t leave anybody in Barrow County behind when it comes to vaccinations.
“If somebody needs a vaccination, let’s all make sure they have quick access to it.”
For Audrey Callahan, it was a heartwarming case of “God’s perfect timing.”
It was April 4, 2010, and Audrey and her family were deep in prayer and hopes that they would hear soon that a new heart was available for her 6-year-old daughter, Grace. On that Easter Sunday, the life-changing call came and their prayers were answered. Grace underwent a successful heart transplant at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the soon-to-be Winder-Barrow High School graduate, who will turn 18 next week, continues to live life to its fullest today.
“She had thousands praying for her, and she and we have all just been really blessed,” Audrey Callahan recalled last week, noting that Easter has marked pivotal milestones for the family throughout Grace’s life. She was born on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2003, received her new heart on Easter and celebrated her 11th “heartiversary” on Easter Sunday this year.
“She received the gift of life on Easter and then received a second chance at life on Easter,” Audrey said. “It’s just really special.”
Eleven days after she was born, Grace was diagnosed with an enlarged heart as part of a condition called cardiomyopathy and was immediately placed in an intensive-care unit. She was placed on several medications, Audrey recalled, and while the likelihood of a heart transplant was always there, Grace compensated well enough to where she was not placed on any wait lists.
The Callahans were able to manage Grace’s condition over the next few years with those medications and consultation from doctors at Children’s, but when she was 6 her health took a bad turn. Audrey recalled that one day the family was at a minor-league hockey game in Gwinnett County when Grace developed a severe headache and stomach ache and could hardly walk. She was admitted to and evaluated at a hospital and placed on a waiting list for a heart. And as she became “too sick to eat” over the next week, the Callahans, practicing Catholics, took part in a novena, a traditional nine-day devotional prayer. It was on the final day of that prayer that the family received the call that a heart was available and the successful surgery followed. Grace remembered that Audrey did well with her recovery, was eating on her own two days after the surgery and was back home shortly thereafter.
“I don’t remember that much about it, but I do remember the shows I watched and the people I was around (in the hospital),” said Grace, who has avoided any other major health scares since then and said she has lived a happy, fulfilled childhood without many limitations. She isn’t able to participate in full-on contact sports, but competed on swim teams for several years.
“It has not been terrible, honestly, other than still having to go to a lot of appointments,” said Grace, who plans to attend the University of North Georgia starting fall and, fittingly, plans to pursue a career as a pediatric nurse. “I would say (her experiences have) definitely made me want to go into pediatric care.”
But Grace and her family are well-aware that her condition will continue to require monitoring and intervention and that her successful transplant was not a cure. The average transplanted heart lasts 17 years, and Grace undergoes an invasive annual examination that is aimed at identifying any signs of rejection. She also undergoes periodic checks for heart blockages and has blood work done regularly.
“There are different types of rejection, and there’s always the risk of an immediate heart attack, but they do their best to look for any potential warning signs. They do a lot to be able to detect those,” Audrey said. “There are different statuses depending on how sick you are, and they don’t put you on a wait list until you really need a heart. Thankfully, ever since the transplant, Grace is not showing any signs of needing a new heart. But unless medicine changes, we know at some point she’ll need another one.”
With that inevitability in mind, the Callahans are hoping to bring about more public awareness to greater need nationwide for organ donors. April is National Donate Life Month, an awareness campaign started in 2003 (the year Grace was born) by national nonprofit Donate Life America and partnering organizations. And next week, when Grace turns 18, will mark the organization’s annual National Pediatric Transplant Week awareness campaign that promotes a goal of ending wait lists for children in need of an organ transplant.
According to statistics from Donate Life, more than 100,000 people are currently on waiting lists for organ transplants; more than 1,700 children were saved with organ transplants in 2020, and more than 1,900 are still on waiting lists. You can register to be an organ donor at RegisterMe.org and can learn more information at donatelife.net. The organization has registered more than 165 million organ, eye and tissue donors over the past 28 years, according to its website.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t indicate that they’re donors, and it’s important for families to have those conversations so people know each other’s wishes,” Audrey said. “We were just so blessed and fortunate that we found a matching heart for Grace. We did write some letters to her donor’s family, and that donor had donated several organs.
“People pass away every day waiting for an organ. When Grace was waiting for her hear, a little boy about year older in the hospital passed away when he was waiting for his second heart. And a little girl we knew, who had a successful heart transplant and recovered, her heart only lasted five years and she didn’t make it. And there are many adults with similar stories.
“We’re just very thankful.”
The Barrow County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, April 13, threw its backing behind a planned housing materials manufacturer plant at the site of a former rail car facility by the county airport.
And, in approving the rezoning and future land-use map designation change requests for the property, commissioners also removed a recommended condition from the county planning commission that company representatives said would have caused them to abandon the project.
Commissioners approved the request by DIV005 to rezone and change the map designation for 76.3 acres at 880 and 976 Airport Rd., Winder, for the company to move into the former Trinity Industries train car facility, which shuttered in March 2020 when that company decided to consolidate operations at its Cartersville plant.
DIV005 has no plans to build any additional buildings on-site, attorney Bill Berryman, representing the company, has said. The company, which manufactures structural metal framing materials, plans to invest more than $22 million in starting operations in the county and will initially employ 55 people with an average wage of $20 an hour, with plans to eventually increase its workforce to over 250 people as it expands operations over the next several years.
In recommending approval of the request to rezone from M-1 (Light Industrial) to M-2 (Heavy Industrial), the planning commission last month backed a county staff recommendation to limit the uses on the property to manufacturing/fabrication of structural framing materials. But Berryman said the company wishes to lease out space on the property to businesses with “complementary” and “low-impact” uses prior to ramping up to full production at the site.
“The condition is too restrictive, and if it’s not removed, we won’t be able to locate here,” Berryman said.
Instead, the applicants offered an alternative condition that several permitted uses under the county’s M-2 zoning would be prohibited on the site, which commissioners agreed to as a substitute condition.
In other business Tuesday, commissioners:
•approved a request to rezone 9.5 acres at Jackson Trail Road and Highway 53 for a convenience store and office warehouse.
•approved a request to rezone 13.4 acres at 1521 Doster Rd., Winder, for an 11-lot subdivision.
•approved a sub-grant agreement with the Atlanta Regional Commission for the Barrow County Comprehensive Transportation Plan study focused on the State Route 316 corridor. The study is being funded primarily with a $250,000 federal grant through the ARC. The county will provide a local match of $62,500.
•approved a service provider agreement with Petpoint for software aimed at improving animal adoption rates. The software comes with the budgeted purchase of microchips at $12,000.
•approved the budgeted purchase of a new truck for the transportation department in the amount of $65,000 to replace a 1989 truck.
The Barrow County Planning Commission this week will consider rezoning requests for a pair of massive residential projects in unincorporated Bethlehem, one of which is receiving strong public pushback through an online petition.
During its meeting starting at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 15, at the historic Barrow County Courthouse in downtown Winder, the panel is set to hold public hearings on a request to rezone 43.7 acres just west of the intersection of Carl-Bethlehem Road and State Route 81 that would allow for a residential development of 288 apartment units and 188 single-family townhomes to be built across from Home Depot — as well as a request to rezone 328 acres at 979 Tom Miller Rd. in order to build a large subdivision with 506 single-family detached homes and 123 townhomes.
Both projects went through a required state review process because of their proposed size, and the county planning staff has recommended approval of the requests with numerous conditions attached. Whatever recommendations the planning commission makes for the projects will then go to the county board of commissioners for a final vote, presumably in May.
The Carl-Bethlehem Road/SR 81 project, known as “Accent Springs,” would replace two existing houses on the land, and bring more than 400 living units to an already-bustling commercial area near the SR 81/SR 316 overpass interchange completed last fall. The developer, Westplan Investors of Lawrenceville, is represented by attorney Shane Lanham, who is also representing the developer of a nearby proposed large townhome community on 67 acres in the City of Winder, east of the Barrow Crossing shopping center. That property was approved for a rezoning last summer by the Winder City Council for 300 apartments and 99 townhomes, but the developer has since requested changes to the conditions and now plans to build the project with 349 townhomes and no apartments. The city council postponed a vote on those changes last week and is now expected to make a final decision next month.
Accent Springs has prompted numerous concerns from residents and the Barrow County School System regarding traffic issues and school capacity. A change.org petition started by Kenneth England, a resident of the neighboring Cambridge Estates subdivision, had garnered nearly 500 signatures by Monday morning, April 12.
The county staff’s recommendation for approval comes with more than a dozen conditions, including that none of the apartments be more than two bedrooms and that the parcels connect to adjacent commercials centers via paved pedestrian and bicycle trails.
The Developments of Regional Impact analysis, completed by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, also recommends incorporating alternative modes of transportation in and out of the development between the subdivision and nearby businesses.
“The proposal’s townhomes and apartments would add diversity to the local housing supply, which is almost exclusively detached single-family houses,” the DRI report reads. “However, the proposed project’s design deviates from the Regional Plan’s recommendations, including failure
to create a sense of place and provide multi-modal transportation infrastructure. While the proposal would create a more compact development pattern than adjacent properties, the site layout guarantees that the project would be auto-centric.”
Accent Springs is currently planned for one phase and projected to be completed by summer 2023 if the rezoning request is approved. The remaining acreage would retain its commercial zoning, though there are no current plans by the developer to develop it, according to the DRI and county staff reports.
A preliminary traffic study estimated 2,674 trips per day in and out of the development, though a full study required by the county is underway.
Lanham’s letter of intent for the project references the massive planned Rowan project just across the county line in Gwinnett, which he said will increasing the need for additional housing along the 316 corridor. The developers also contend that the traffic situation would ultimately be worse if the land is left entirely open for future commercial development.
The Georgia Department of Transportation has requested studies/analysis for the intersections of SR 316/Carl-Bethlehem Road, SR 81/Carl-Bethlehem Road, SR 81/Hoyt King Road and the new driveway proposed road off SR 81. One comment in the DRI analysis also asks if the county will require upgrades to the intersection of Carl-Bethlehem and Haymon Morris roads.
The project proposed at 979 Tom Miller Rd. by Ashton Atlanta Residential of Alpharetta would add more than 600 additional living units on one of the largest remaining open tracts of land near the Apalachee High, Haymon-Morris Middle and Yargo Elementary school complex. It has drawn the same concerns of overcrowding from school officials.
The county staff’s recommendation for approval includes conditions the county has typically attached to single-family residential projects in recent years (minimum of 2,000 square feet for detached homes and no vinyl siding), avoiding a “monotonous” appearance of homes and minimizing disruption to existing water bodies and streams on the property — a concern that was also raised in the DRI report.
The DRI analysis also identified a “lack of diverse housing” in the plan and additional congestion on Tom Miller Road as issues.
And GDOT has recommended that traffic conditions be investigated at SR 316 and Patrick Mill Road, with a new traffic signal suggested at SR 81 and Tom Miller Road. GDOT is exploring the possibility of a roundabout at the intersection, but additional improvements, including turn lanes, may be required if more traffic from such a large development is added, according to the DRI report.
Other public hearings the planning commission is scheduled to hold Thursday include:
•a request by Sarah Place, LLC to rezone and change the future land-use map designation for 43.9 acres at 331 Cosby Rd., Winder, for a 91-lot residential subdivision. Staff has recommended denial of the requests due to concerns that the subdivision would be too close to properties zoned for industrial development near the Barrow County Airport, but has offered conditions for approval, including that the subdivision be developed as a less-dense conservation subdivision.
•a request to rezone 6 acres at SR 316 and Smith Cemetery Road for office and warehouse space for Athens-headquartered Lotus International, a home and gardening product distributor.
•a request to rezone 4.9 acres at the intersection of SR 316 and Barber Creek Road for a convenience store/gas station.
The Barrow County Board of Commissioners will hold its annual strategic planning retreat next week and has packed the agenda with several key items — including the future of ambulance transport in the county and project ideas for a potential November SPLOST referendum.
Commissioners and county department heads will gather for the daylong retreat Tuesday, April 20, starting at 8 a.m. at The Hostess House, 299 Cedar Creek Rd., Winder. The meeting is open to the public.
Items listed on the agenda include:
•an update on plans to transfer ambulance-transport service to Northeast Georgia Health System. County and hospital officials have spent the last several months discussing an arrangement where the health system would handle all hospital transports within the county with a target date of July 1. Barrow County Emergency Services employees would remain with the county and on response calls to emergencies, officials have said, adding that the department continues to struggle with paramedic shortages and recruiting issues.
•a discussion of the county’s plans and vision for future involvement in the Innovation Amphitheater. The county has struggled to generate revenues from various performances at the venue, which has spent the last year mostly empty due to the coronavirus pandemic.
•a discussion of planning and zoning issues.
•a discussion of a potential countywide reevaluation with chief appraiser Guy Rogers.
•a discussion of the upcoming Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposals.
•a discussion of placing a SPLOST renewal referendum on voters’ ballots in November, potential projects that could go on the list and the timing of a citizen SPLOST committee that would ultimately make project recommendations to the BOC. The current 1-cent SPLOST was approved by county voters in 2017, took effect in July 2018 and expires June 2023.
•a discussion of public works projects.
•a discussion of county property space needs.
•a discussion of how to utilize funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The county is slated to receive more than $16 million from the coronavirus relief and stimulus legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Biden last month.