The Barrow County School System announced Aug. 18 that it will impose temporary mask mandates for schools where at least 1% of its population tests positive for COVID-19 amid spiking coronavirus levels around the county and increased close-contact quarantines in the schools.
Under the changes that took effect last week, all staff and students will be required to temporarily wear masks indoors at school and on school buses for those schools at or above the 1% threshold. The mandate will be rescinded once the schools falls below 1% for five consecutive school days, according to a news release.
On Thursday, Aug. 19, less than a day after the changes were announced, mask mandates were put into effect at Apalachee High, Russell Middle and Winder Elementary schools. By Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 24, that list had expanded to Auburn Elementary, Bear Creek Middle, the Arts & Innovation Magnet campus, Statham Elementary and Winder-Barrow High.
The school district on Tuesday morning reported that 170 students tested positive for COVID-19 from Aug. 16-20, roughly double the amount from the previous week (Aug. 9-13), and the number of staff cases also grew.
A district spokesperson said officials will review the case data each morning from the previous day and notify school principals by or around noon if the threshold has been reached and coordinate communications to students and families from there.
The district is providing weekly case total updates for the previous week every Tuesday morning on its website, along with a running list of schools with mask mandates in effect.
The district also announced last week stricter enforcement of virus-spread mitigation measures it introduced in schools last year, including:
•Hallways will use structured and one-way crowd flow.
•Desks and seating areas will be arranged to maximize space between students.
•Students will remain in smaller cohorts to limit mixing.
•Masks are required in school clinics.
•Seating charts will be used in all classrooms and cafeterias and on buses.
•There will be no large indoor gatherings that bring together students and staff not normally in contact with one another.
•Virtual events, rather than face-to-face, will be used as much as possible.
Only “essential” visitors will be allowed in buildings, officials said, including parents (those who can’t meet virtually), staff, contracted workers providing services to students and mentors with parent permission. Those visitors will be expected to wear a mask while in the buildings, officials said.
Staff who are vaccinated but identified as a close contact should wear a mask for 10 days, and students will eat all meals in classrooms or classes will rotate through cafeterias in smaller groups, according to the release.
There will be no restrictions on any outdoor events that have voluntary attendance, officials said.
The school district’s shift came as the CDC has recommended universal indoor masking in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. But for now, BCSS is forgoing universal mask mandates.
Top district officials did not respond before press time to a question on why they were not implementing a systemwide mandate. They did, though, encouraging mask-wearing in the news release and said they are stressing that students stay home if they’re feeling ill.
No further policy changes had been announced as of press time.
“Your actions may very well be the deciding factor regarding whether we avoid a system-wide masking mandate and/or have to shut a school or schools down for a period of time,” officials said.
Representatives from metro Atlanta’s hospitals addressed the recent explosion of COVID-19 Delta variant cases, which includes an increasing number of young patients, during an Aug. 19 joint press conference.
The press conference, held outside of Mercedes Benz Stadium, was hosted jointly by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory, Grady, Piedmont, Wellstar and Northeast Georgia Health System, the latter of which serves Braselton and Barrow County.
“We’re seeing far more young people affected by this virus requiring hospitalization, suffering devastating injuries, such as lifelong injury to their lungs as well as strokes and heart attacks,” said Dr. Danny Branstetter, medical director of infection prevention at Wellstar Health System.
Similarly, Dr. Jim Fortenberry, chief medical officer of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said Children’s hospitals “are seeing a significantly greater impact on our children and our teens.”
Fortenberry noted that many children aren’t yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to help guard against the highly-infectious Delta variant.
“Many of our kids can’t get the vaccine because of their ages,” Fortenberry said. “So, we all play a role in preventing the spread to them. The best way to protect all of our kids is to get vaccinated.”
Fortenberry recommended children older than 12 and “everyone of us as adults” take the vaccine.
“It is the way out of the pandemic right now,” Fortenberry said.
Only a small fraction of children who have tested positive have required hospitalization so far, Fortenberry said. But he pointed to a combination of a more-easily transmitted COVID-19 virus with an unusual summer surge of respiratory viruses, including Respiratory Syncytial Virus, driving high volumes of patients into Children’s facilities.
As of Aug. 19, 31 patients were hospitalized across Children’s three hospital locations with COVID-19, while large numbers of young patients had respiratory viruses. The majority of children with COVID-19 have underlying medical conditions, “but some of our kids are previously healthy that are coming in to need hospitalization,” Fortenberry said.
Meanwhile, Branstetter said Wellstar’s facilities are again filling up with COVID patients, young and old and those with co-morbidities who have not been vaccinated, according to Bransetter.
“Ninety-two percent of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated,” said Bransetter, adding that 60 percent of Wellstar ICU patients are unvaccinated COVID 19 patients.
Dr. Andy Jaffal, chief medical officer for Piedmont Atlanta, said “increasingly, we are now seeing younger patients in our hospitals.”
Jaffal said he watched a previously healthy, 28-year-old unvaccinated patient pass away from COVID complications.
“And while we value every life, that one was tough,” Jaffal said, “because it could have been prevented.”
Overrun hospitals fear highest COVID spike yet
Jaffal expects this latest COVID surge to “significantly outpace the previous highest peak.”
That bleak forecast comes as the Delta variant surge has already taken its toll on metro Atlanta hospitals.
Dr. Robert Jansen, chief medical officer for Grady Health System, said Grady facilities — which also treat a large number of trauma patients — are now having to divert patients due to “this tsunami” of COVID patients filling up emergency rooms.
“For the first time that I can remember, we are having to go on diversion — not because of trauma cases — but because our emergency department is full of patients who were infected with COVID,” Jansen said.
Jansen stressed that diversion doesn’t mean Grady won’t treat all patients seeking care.
“But it’s our way of communicating to the ambulances that we’re full, and if you can find another place to go that can deliver care quicker, that would be a better option,” Jansen explained.
In addition to ICU space being spread thin, many front-line healthcare workers have left the profession, weary of a pandemic that has lasted for well over a year and is heading toward a projected spike worse than any since the initial COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are seeing many nurses and clinicians, the strongest professionals I have ever known, leave the profession or pause their careers because of the stress (that) the pandemic has caused both personally and professionally,” said Sharon Pappus, chief nurse executive for Emory Healthcare.
Each medical professional who spoke Thursday pled with the unvaccinated to take the vaccine.
“We need everyone to do their part by getting vaccinated,” Pappus said. “Vaccinations drastically reduce hospitalizations and severe illness.”
Jaffal said that 96 percent of Piedmont’s COVID patients are unvaccinated, while 97 percent of its ICU patients are unvaccinated.
“Considering the rapid spread of COVID-19 infections across Georgia, vaccines work,” he said. “Vaccines are the very best way you can protect yourself, you loved ones and your family.”
Jansen reiterated that hospitalized COVID patients are primarily “people who have chosen, for whatever reason, to not get a vaccine that we all know is safe and effective.”
“It’s available, get vaccinated,” he said. “Take care of yourself.”
“Go out and get vaccinated,” echoed Dr. John Delzell, vice president of education for Northeast Georgia Health System. “If you haven’t already been vaccinated this is the time to do it.”
“The risk is very minimal; the upside benefit is enormous,” he added.
Delzell also encouraged the public to continue to wear masks, wash hands and avoid large gatherings as other preventative measures.
Active trials for a vaccine for children under age 12 are ongoing, according to Fortenberry of Children’s Hospitals.
But he stressed vaccination among those old enough to receive it.
“While we’re waiting, we know there’s lots and lots of people that can benefit from the vaccine right now,” he said.
Barrow County voters will decide this fall whether to continue the countywide 1-cent special-purpose local-option sales tax for another six years once the current one expires.
The county board of commissioners voted Tuesday, Aug. 24, to call the referendum and place it on the Nov. 2 ballot. If approved, the tax is projected to generate another $120.8 million over the six-year period, which will go toward various capital-improvement projects in the unincorporated portions of the county and within the county’s municipalities’ corporate limits. The county and the City of Winder, representing the municipalities, also have agreed to an intergovernmental agreement, approved by the BOC and the Winder City Council, that allows for a six-year collection period for “SPLOST 2023” — rather than the five-year period for SPLOST 2018 — and for the entities to collect more than the projected $120.8 million to be listed in the referendum if collections exceed that mark within the six-year frame.
County and municipal leaders have pushed in recent months to bring another SPLOST referendum to voters this November due to projections that SPLOST 2018 will hit its designated $56.6 million collection mark several months early, either in late 2022 or 2023. With the IGA in place, if the SPLOST 2023 referendum were approved, collections would essentially continue uninterrupted. If voters were to reject the measure on the ballot, it could not be placed on the ballot again for one year, and it’s currently unclear whether a November 2022 vote in favor by the voters would be done in enough time to keep collections from being interrupted.
Large majorities of county voters have voted for the 1-cent SPLOST the last three times it has appeared on the ballot, and, if approved, the 2023 one would result in by far the largest SPLOST haul for the local governments in the county.
Of the projected $120.8 million in collections, an estimated $38.6 million would be set aside for an expansion of the county’s detention center and judicial courthouse. The remaining more than $82 million would be split for use by the county and municipal governments on roughly a population basis with the county receiving 62.5% and the cities a combined 37.5%.
With its extra money — a projected $51.5 million — the county plans to spend:
•$15 million in road, street, bridge and sidewalk and other transportation-related projects.
•$15 million in equipment purchases to include 911 system upgrades, vehicles, technology, software and voting equipment.
•$6.5 million on paying down Bear Creek water reservoir bond debt.
•$5 million each in fire safety equipment and facilities as well as parks and recreation facilities and equipment.
•$2 million each on county facility projects and improvements as well as water system projects and improvements.
•and $1 million on sewer system projects and improvements.
The remaining roughly $30.5 million or so would be distributed to the municipalities as follows:
•$17.7 million to Winder, with the city planning to spend a little more of a quarter of those collections (26%) on road and transportation-related projects. The rest of the money would be split between stormwater infrastructure (15%), administrative facilities and equipment (15%), police department facilities and equipment (12%), fire department facilities and equipment (12%), parks and rec and related projects (10%), and sanitation and solid waste facilities and equipment (10%).
•$8.5 million to Auburn, with $4 million going toward paying down debt on the city’s future municipal complex, which is scheduled to open next summer, $1.8 million for transportation projects and $1.3 million for parks and rec. The rest would be split between stormwater infrastructure ($500,000) and $300,000 each for police and public safety facilities and equipment, city facilities and equipment, and water and sewer capital improvements and related facilities.
•$3.5 million to Statham, with nearly all of it going toward water and sewer infrastructure improvements, facilities and equipment. The city proposes to spend $100,000 each on stormwater capital improvements and transportation-related projects.
•$1.75 million to Braselton for parks and recreation.
•$708,000 to Bethlehem for transportation-related and stormwater improvement projects.
•and $231,000 to Carl for transportation-related improvements.
Also under the IGA, the municipalities would collect 40% of the initial proceeds with the remaining 60% being set aside for the “justice center” expansion. Without an IGA in place, the cities would have to wait an estimated two years until all of the money for the expansion project was collected.
All three Winder City Council incumbents in the upcoming city election will face challengers, as qualifying for the November municipal elections in Barrow County wrapped up Friday, Aug. 20.
Ward 1 councilman Sonny Morris, who was first elected in 1986 and has typically won re-election without opposition, will face three challengers this time — Matthew Redfern, Melissa Baughcum and Yvonne Greenway.
Councilman Chris Akins, who holds one of the two citywide at-large council seats and is seeking a second term, also will face opposition from three candidates — Stephanie Britt, Beth Speights and Jerry Martin.
And in Ward 3, Jimmy Terrell will also run for a second term and is being challenged by Danny Darby.
The spike in the number of council candidates qualifying compared to recent elections comes after the council earlier this month voted to double the city’s millage rate to help fund the fiscal year 2022 budget it passed two weeks earlier and reduce the city’s reliance on utility fund transfers to help balance the General Fund. Greenway, a former employee in the city’s planning department, was one of the more vocal critics during public hearings held on the budget this summer.
Terrell was one of two council members to vote against the budget and the only one to vote against the millage rate hike after former councilwoman Holly Sheats resigned.
Among Akins’ challengers, Martin was one of 10 candidates to apply earlier this month for the other at-large seat vacated by Sheats. The council is scheduled to appoint her replacement at its Sept. 2 meeting.
In Statham, Mayor Joe Piper’s wife, Janel Piper, is among the seven candidates who will vie for the three at-large council seats up for grabs in November. None of the three incumbents up for re-election this year — Tammy Crawley, Dwight McCormic and Betty Lyle — qualified to run again.
Joining Piper in the crowded field are former Barrow County Board of Education member Debi Krause, who resigned from her board seat in June to run for the council, previous council candidate Scott Penn, Lee Patterson, Parker Elrod, Barnard Sims and Ethan Breazzano.
In Auburn, councilmen Bill Ackworth and Robert Vogel III qualified to seek re-election to their at-large seats, while Taylor Sisk also qualified to run. The top two vote-getters in November will be elected.
There won’t be an election held in Bethlehem, as incumbents Bryan Bell (Post 1) and Tommy Buchanan (Post 5) qualified with no opposition and Dan Wages was the only person to qualify for the Post 3 seat. Councilman Joe Price, who currently serves in the Post 3 seat, is moving out of the town limits.
COVID-19 infection levels in Barrow County have continued a dreadful spike in the last week with 71 new cases confirmed in the county Tuesday by the Georgia Department of Public Health and a rolling seven-day average of 62.7 new daily cases.
Another three COVID-19-related deaths among county residents were also confirmed in the last week, bringing the total of confirmed deaths to 146 in addition to another five “probable” deaths listed.
Area hospitalization numbers have also been steadily increasing with Northeast Georgia Health System reporting Tuesday morning that it was up to 248 patients confirmed to have COVID across its facilities and another 36 awaiting test results.
There were 11 COVID-positive patients at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow in Winder and 76 at NGMC Braselton. The Winder hospital reported having three beds available as of Tuesday morning.
The rate of county residents considered fully vaccinated was at 34% as of Tuesday morning, according to DPH data.