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COVID cases continue to rise; local health leaders urge caution during holidays

Local health leaders are urging the community to use caution during the upcoming Christmas holidays as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the area.

The Greater Hall County Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum last week with representatives from District 2 Public Health and Northeast Georgia Health System.

As of Dec. 14, the hospital system was treating 265 COVID-19 patients with 58 of those at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton.

Across the system, there are 688 occupied hospital beds with 30 available. At NGMC Braselton, 163 beds are occupied with five available (23 occupied in ICU with three available). At one point last week, NGMC Braselton had zero beds available.

“We are seeing the surge that was predicted,” said Dr. Clifton Hastings, NGHS chief of staff. “We’re weathering it. But we really don’t have any capacity at this point, we’re just making do.”

The number of COVID cases has risen after major holidays throughout the year. With the upcoming Christmas holiday approaching, Dr. John Delzell, vice president of medical education and designated institutional official at NGHS, is encouraging the community to be smart about holiday family gatherings.

“If we want to decrease the risk of transmission of the virus, what we really need to make sure if that we’re paying attention to even those family gatherings,” he said.

Small gatherings within your immediate family that you see regularly may be a lower-risk activity. Delzell noted that as the party size goes up, so does the risk. He also noted the risks involved with traveling or hosting family from outside of the region.

“So we would encourage you to really think about how do you do that safely,” Delzell said.

He cited a number of different precautions a person can take if they’re taking part in higher risk activities, include wearing a mask at all times; spacing people out instead of eating at one table; and having one person plate guests’ meals.

Delzell also encouraged families to be honest about any COVID symptoms and to stay home if you have any of those symptoms.

“What we’re really trying to do is protect each other in those instances,” said Delzell. “And as much as we want to see grandma, we also don’t want to accidentally infect grandma.”

VACCINATION FORTHCOMING

Health leaders also discussed the forthcoming COVID-19 vaccination.

The Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorizations for Pfizer for its COVID-19 vaccination, which is being distributed this week.

The first group to receive the vaccination will be healthcare workers.

“We certainly need to help those healthcare workers,” said Zachary Taylor, District 2 Public Health Director.

Residents of long-term care facilities will also be one of the first groups vaccinated. After that, there’s been discussion about vaccinating “critical infrastructure” employees, followed by those over 65 years old and those with medical conditions.

Younger adults without medical conditions could begin receiving the vaccination in late spring or early summer.

BRASELTON AREA

Hall and Jackson counties remain two of the hardest hit counties in the state when looking at new cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks. Gwinnett and Barrow counties are also above the state average, but haven't yet reached the level of Hall and Jackson.

In Braselton's four county area, there have been:

  • Barrow: 3,829 cases; 60 confirmed deaths; 601 new cases in the past two weeks (696 per 100,000 residents)
  • Gwinnett: 42,662 cases; 528 confirmed deaths; 37 probable deaths; 5,963 new cases in the past two weeks (614 per 100,000 residents)
  • Hall: 14,414 cases; 200 confirmed deaths; nine probable deaths; 1,913 new cases in the past two weeks (927 per 100,000 residents)
  • Jackson: 3,912 cases; 54 confirmed deaths; nine probable deaths; 724 new cases in the past two weeks (969 per 100,000 residents)
  • State: 479,340 cases; 9,218 confirmed deaths; 886 probable deaths; 57,672 new cases in the past two weeks (532 per 100,000 residents)

News
Hall middle, high schools transition to blended learning

Hall County middle and high school students will transition to blended learning on Wednesday, Dec. 16. Blended learning will be held through Friday, Dec. 18.

All middle and high school teachers and staff will report to schools from December 16-18.

Elementary school students will continue to follow the in-person instructional model.

All Hall County School District extracurricular activities will switch to a “maximum two tickets per participant rule” until further notice. No general admission tickets will be sold to the public. This will also apply to the Lanierland basketball tournament. For extracurricular activities proving to have COVID-19 spread among participants and coaches, additional changes may be required.

The Hall County School District will utilize an A/B hybrid schedule January 5-8, to re-teach 200 Percent Accountability and to ensure the district are in a position to deliver in-person instruction after the holiday break, the district said in a news release. Students whose last names begin with L-Z will report to their school on January 5 and 7. Those with last names beginning with A-K will report on January 6 and 8.

“The school district continues to stress the importance of observing mitigation practices during this critical time — both on and off campus for students, families and team members,” HCSD leaders said. “We encourage everyone to socially distance, wear masks and take other precautions as we enter the holiday break.”

UPDATE

Riverbend Elementary School will participate in blended learning from Wednesday, Dec. 16, through Friday, Dec. 18.

The school has experienced a significant increase in teacher and staff absences due to quarantine numbers and positive cases of COVID-19.

"We will continue to monitor the situation and will notify parents prior to the end of the break regarding delivery of instruction for the first week in January," district leaders said.

The building will undergo a deep cleaning Tuesday evening (Dec. 15) and teachers and staff not under quarantine will report to the building on Wednesday (Dec. 16) to ensure effective delivery of blended instruction.


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Mayor: ‘Take COVID-19 threat seriously’

After battling COVID-19 himself, Braselton’s mayor is urging the community to take the virus seriously.

Braselton Mayor Bill Orr contracted the virus in late October after a business trip in Knoxville, Tenn.

“On Oct. 22 after having lunch in our offices with two of my staff, social distancing protocol observed, I began feeling ill and decided not to return home that afternoon as I was overly tired and did not feel like I could safely drive,” Orr said in letter about his experience with COVID. “Instead, I re-checked into the hotel and spent the night. I got up Friday morning and started the 2 ½ hour ride home to Braselton. It was a hard drive but I made it and spent the weekend at home on opposite sides of our home from my wife, Garol.”

Orr’s condition got worse quickly. He experienced a fever over 100-degrees that next Monday, which crept up to 102-degrees the following day. Two days later, the thermometer read 104.7-degrees.

“I had the timer set to every four hours to take more Tylenol and when my fever was in the 103-104.7 range, I just didn’t want to address it. I didn’t want to take medicine,” Orr said, noting he was delirious from the fever.

His wife took him to Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton and waited outside while he was taken into the emergency room.

“They assessed me and swabbed my nose, and put an IV in where they added essential fluids to my body,” Orr recalled. “My lung scan showed small blood clots (embolism) created by the virus, I was told.”

He was discharged that afternoon and given four prescriptions, including an inhaler. His fever finally broke on Saturday, Oct. 31 and he’s been in the process of recovering ever since.

Orr still suffers from some shortness of breath.

He also has moments when he can’t taste anything and when he tastes and smells smoke. During those bouts, he opts for intensely-flavored foods, like dried fruits, or those with a crunchy texture.

Orr is thankful for the staff at NGMC Braselton.

“I feel blessed that we have such a quality facility and quality staff in our town of Braselton,” he said.

When he was admitted to NGMC Braselton, Orr said the hospital wasn’t substantially crowded. But that’s changed in recent weeks as the number of COVID-19 patients has sky-rocketed.

“Right now, they’re inundated,” Orr said, adding that hospital capacity concerns are another reason to take COVID seriously.

Orr said he wanted to share his story to encourage the community to continue taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

“It’s easier than anybody can think to catch it,” said Orr, who noted he still doesn’t know where he contracted the virus.

And as many local families are preparing for the Christmas holidays, Orr stressed the need to “not throw caution to the wind.”

“Please take this threat seriously as you travel and entertain over the holidays,” Orr said. “It is real and while many have mild reactions there are just as many that experience what I experienced and many worse. As we move into Christmas and the winter months, please take every precaution you can to avoid being exposed. If you are exposed, take it seriously. God bless and have a Merry Christmas.”


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Hoschton council looking at hefty pay hike

Members of the Hoschton City Council could get a pretty big pay hike in 2022 if a proposal from Mayor Shannon Sell moves forward.

Sell proposed that the council's pay be increased to $500 per month for each council member and $1,000 per month for the mayor. In addition, he suggested that all council members be eligible for city group health insurance and retirement programs offered to other city employees.

Sell pitched the plan at the council's Dec. 14 meeting, but said it was an idea that had been floating around for a while.

Council members are currently paid $25 per meeting with a maximum of $75 per month.

Sell also said that when the city's charter is redone, he wants the council to go back to six members from the current five.

There would be an election cycle in 2021 before the proposed pay hikes would take effect in January 2022, he said.

OTHER BUSINESS

In other business at the Dec. 14 council meeting, the board discussed:

• ways to change the city's meetings schedule for 2021. The council wants to move the city's planning commission meeting to the end of the month to give officials more time to process planning board actions before those go to the council for approval. The council also appears to want to move its own meeting time from 7 p.m. back to 5:30 p.m. and perhaps change the day of the week the council meets from Monday to another day. City staff said they would work out a plan to present to the council at its Dec. 21 meeting.

• some changes to the city stormwater ordinance and to have some stormwater agreements recorded in county deed records.

• the city's comprehensive plan update, which officials said needs more work before it comes back to the council. There are several "major" revisions needed, officials said.

• the preliminary plant for a 300-unit townhome development off of Towne Center Parkway. The project was approved in 2018 and is ready to begin development. The city's planning commission had recommended developers prepay for half of all the necessary sewer taps for the project, but city officials said that isn't necessary. Several other conditions are in place for the project, which the council is expected to vote on Dec. 21.

• several rezoning and zoning variances. Three of the variances involve property the city wants to put new water towers on. A rezoning for Eddie Butler along New Street from R-2 to R-3 to build two single-family homes will also be on the Dec. 21 agenda.


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Jackson schools planning for phased-in return after holidays

The Jackson County School System is making plans to "phase-in" middle and high school students to in-person classes following the Christmas break.

During a meeting of the Jackson County Board of Education last week, school leaders outlined plans for a phased-in return to class due to an anticipated high rate of Covid spread during the holidays.

The plan revolves around alternating in-person learning days with middle and high school students with two days a week being in-person and three days a week attending class by remote learning.

How long the alternating plan would be in effect will depend on updated data about the virus' spread during January.

The large December uptick in overall community spread of Covid led the school system to stop in-person classes last week and move to remote learning until the holiday break begins on Dec. 21.

Superintendent April Howard said the virus had hit a large number of teachers, substitutes, bus drivers and other school personnel making in-person classes almost impossible.

"There's been a significant increase in the spread rate and the unfortunate thing is, the spread rate has hit our adults in our buildings more than students," she said.

Howard said one of the problems is a declining lack of compliance with the wearing of masks by middle and high school students. While the system doesn't mandate mask-wearing at this point, Howard said school leaders are "gong to have to tighten-up on students wearing a mask."

She said that based on experience from Halloween and Thanksgiving, school leaders expect the rate of community spread of the virus to be exacerbated during the Christmas break from travel and other kinds of out-of-school holiday contact.

System leaders will evaluate updated Covid data on Dec. 31 to make a final announcement about the phase-in, she said.

THE PLAN

The idea behind the alternating in-person class plan is to lower the number of students in school buildings, Howard said.

Social distancing in crowded school buildings is one issue, she said. As of last week, the system had 770 students out due to quarantine.

"If we don't do this (a phase-in), we will continue to see a large number of students quarantined," Howard said.

She said that elementary schools would return to full in-person classes since the problems there are less dire and because lower-grade students are more compliant with wearing a mask.

But middle school and high school students haven't been as willing to wear masks on a consistent basis, she said.

Howard said she recognized that a mask mandate is a "hot topic," but that given the rate of spread, the community hasn't mitigated the virus very well.

"If we do not require masks of at least all staff and students in our buildings, we're going to jeopardize our ability to stay in-person (classes,)" Howard said.

PARENT PUSHBACK

Several parents commented during the board's virtual meeting that they were concerned about the alternating schedule, saying that their children hadn't done well with remote learning. The impact on students' GPA averages was a major concern.

Howard said she understood the impact of remote learning on families, but that with adults getting sick or under quarantine, it was becoming more difficult to staff in-person learning. 

Howard said parents should continue to work with their children's teachers to address specific problems and that school leaders understand students should not be punished academically over a situation like the virus which they can't control.

She also emphasized the need for middle and high school students to be more compliant with wearing a mask to prevent spreading the virus.


News
Braselton approves drive-thru for proposed smoothie chain project

Braselton leaders recently gave the nod for a request to allow a drive-thru in the Riverstone Braselton development. The applicant is targeting a national smoothie chain for the site.

The Braselton Town Council voted Dec. 14 to approve the conditional use drive-thru request on a .72-acre tract on Friendship Rd.

Developers plan a 5,000 square foot retail center, which will have multiple tenants.

The request was approved with several conditions, including a stipulation that only 2,000 sq. ft. of the building can be used by the drive-thru tenant. Another condition limits the hours to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Council member Jim Joedecke was the lone "nay" vote against the move, citing concerns with potential traffic issues and the increasing number of drive-thru restaurants in the Hwy. 211 area.

“I am concerned that we will have a situation not too long from now where we could have drive-thrus up and down (Hwy.) 211," Joedecke said.

Joedecke added that as more drive-thrus are approved in the Hwy. 211 area, it will be easier for developers to argue that future proposed drive-thrus fit with the character of the area.

OTHER BUSINESS

Also at its meeting, the council approved:

•an alcohol beverage request for Larry Monroe for Cotton Calf Kitchen.

•an alcohol beverage request for Daniel Pinto for Diablos.

•an alcohol beverage license for Jill Harr for Johnny’s Pizza.

•a concept plan for a conservation subdivision on Davis St. The council previously approved the project, but developers didn’t yet have a concept plan for the conservation subdivision when the request was approved.


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