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Over 500K phones in DeKalb light up with urgent COVID alert

By J.D. Capelouto, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

DeKalb County would like you to know that this pandemic is still very real.

Over half a million phones buzzed early Friday morning with an urgent message from the county reminding people to take precautions heading into the Labor Day holiday weekend.

“Our fight against COVID-19 is not over,” the emergency alert stated. “The spread has slowed but has not stopped. Stay vigilant.”

The message went out to the 566,000 people who are in DeKalb’s “CodeRED” emergency notification system, the county said in a statement. A text message was also sent to “all residents, visitors and commuters in county’s boundary at the time of the alert.”

ExploreComplete coverage: Coronavirus

Throughout the upcoming holiday weekend, DeKalb said, all visitors will receive “targeted COVID-19 alerts.”

Friday’s alert mirrored a similar message sent to DeKalb residents and visitors over the July 4 holiday weekend. It urged residents to stay home when possible, wear a mask, social distance and avoid large gatherings.

“Do not allow our efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 be undermined during the Labor Day weekend,” DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said in a statement. “We must remain vigilant because the fight against the deadly pandemic is not over.”

DeKalb has recorded almost 17,000 total coronavirus cases, the fourth highest in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Health. In the last two weeks, it has seen over 1,100 confirmed cases.

On social media, several residents complained about the early-morning nature of the alert, which some received around 8 a.m.

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Families struggle for answers in senior care investigations

By Brad Schrade, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

Since her sister died in early April, Clarissa Strickland has wrestled with feelings of guilt and anger at how the final weeks at a metro-area assisted living facility played out. Nan Durrett’s health deteriorated steadily in late March after the home went on lockdown because of the pandemic.

By the time Durrett made it to a hospital on April 7, she had suffered several falls, dropped 11 pounds and lost the ability to feed herself. Over the course of the next 24 hours, her condition declined rapidly as she struggled to breathe. Doctors later told Strickland that her sister was presumed to have coronavirus, even though an initial quick-test during admissions came up negative.

She died April 8 before the hospital could complete a retest.

“The sight of her dying alone as I watched on FaceTime, writhing and moaning in pain, is something I will never be able to erase from my mind,” Strickland said.

ExploreThe ‘Unprotected’ investigative series on senior care homes

That nightmare and the belief that The Phoenix at Tucker assisted living home had failed their family led Strickland and her daughter, Courtenay, to file a complaint on April 27 with the state agency that licenses and oversees nursing homes, assisted living homes and other senior care facilities.

After months of waiting, the family received a letter from the Department of Community Health (DCH) in August that left them with more questions than answers.

The case is emblematic of the difficulties families can face when something goes wrong in a senior care home in Georgia and they feel they aren’t getting straight answers. While DCH talks and meets regularly with the industry it regulates, it has a reputation for being less than forthcoming with affected family members and the general public.

ExploreGeorgia’s oversight of long-term care shaky as COVID-19 cases jump

DCH’s letter to the Stricklands offered little detail about the agency’s investigation other than to say it was completed and “the evidence obtained during the investigation was able to support one or more of your allegations.”

The letter failed to mention that regulators had sent an investigation summary report to the facility with specific violations outlined. DCH also didn’t say anything about a public report that was available online or that there were additional public records on the case available in the agency’s files.

The Stricklands didn’t learn about the availability of these reports until after they contacted a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the investigation’s conclusion.

“The lack of follow-up with us makes it feel like we are bystanders in this, rather than key players,” said Courtenay Strickland. “Families are and should be the primary stakeholders in this, and the process should be oriented accordingly.”

Over the years, said State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Melanie McNeil, her office has received complaints from families about the difficulty of getting information about a case, even after DCH has investigated.

”When families feel they are in the dark and residents feel they are in the dark, they get really frustrated,” said McNeil, the consumer advocate for senior care residents.

Those challenges have been compounded during the coronavirus pandemic. Families and even McNeil’s ombudsman representatives have not been able to visit facilities since regular visitations ended in March.

“The lack of follow-up with us makes it feel like we are bystanders in this, rather than key players.”

– Courtenay Strickland, whose aunt’s death at an assisted living home is under investigation

DCH’s report on the Stricklands’ complaint found that the assisted living community had provided inadequate care. Durrett, who had Parkinson’s disease, Lewy Body dementia and a history of falls, fell at least five times in the two months she lived at the home.

State regulators also cited the facility for failing to respond to a disease outbreak.

Roswell-based Phoenix Senior Living, which operates the Tucker facility, said it was aware of the findings and has reviewed the DCH report in detail. The company also said it has been vigilant throughout the pandemic.

“We remain unwavering in our commitment to protect our residents and employees during this unprecedented time,” said Yolanda Doley Hunter, Phoenix’s vice president of risk management.

The facility said Durrett never tested positive for coronavirus while at the home.

Her family contends the home never tested her, even though they asked in March if she needed to be tested because she was running a fever and had other symptoms.

Mother went downhill after fall

DCH Commissioner Frank Berry and his agency’s leadership have declined repeated interview requests for more than a year to discuss the agency’s work regulating Georgia’s senior care industry. The agency will only respond to questions in writing.

The agency did not directly answer the AJC’s questions about why regulators don’t send copies of investigative reports to family members or at least alert them about the availability of reports online, even in cases where their loved ones have been harmed.

“DCH can mail inspection reports to the complainant upon their request; for quicker access, all interested persons can visit the GaMap2Care site,” the agency told the AJC.

DCH does send its investigation reports to the facilities, which the agency said is a requirement so that the they can correct any problems found.

Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, said it’s common sense that a family member who filed a complaint against a facility would want to see the report once DCH finishes its investigation.

“They could be a lot more specific about being transparent to these families,” said Cooper, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee.

After the AJC interviewed her, Cooper contacted DCH leaders.

She said she received assurances that the department is in the process of tweaking the information it provides to families after its investigations to make it easier for them to find the reports online.

“Why not be more specific?” Cooper said. “That would be true transparency.”

Such a change could help people like Cheryl Andrews get answers.

She filed a complaint with DCH in March after her mother received what Andrews considered was subpar care at a personal care home near Macon.

Andrews said her mother, Frances Smith, suffered for two weeks with an undiagnosed broken left hip after a fall at the home. After the fall, the 89-year-old, who had dementia, stopped walking and developed bedsores.

“My mother went downhill from there,” Andrews said.

Smith died April 30 as she was trying to recover at a rehab nursing home.

Months passed, but Andrews said she received no word from the state about its investigation. She contacted DCH in late August and they notified her the investigation had closed in April. A DCH regional director told Andrews via email that they had substantiated some of her allegations.

The supervisor said Andrews would have to file a public records request to find out details of the investigation. Andrews said she was told she may have to pay to receive the report.

The state said nothing about an investigation report that was posted online months ago that provides details of what regulators found as they cited the home for inadequate care.

The home’s administrator didn’t care to comment about Smith’s case, but said the home has updated policies and training to address any issues that occurred.

Andrews said she wants someone to be held accountable for what happened to her mother, and she’s troubled by the way the state handled the case.

“It really makes me feel like my mother was not valued because of the process,” Andrews said.

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A look at major coronavirus developments over the past week

By Helena Oliviero, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

With the latest numbers showing progress in Georgia’s fight to contain the coronavirus, Gov. Brian Kemp has extended an order that charts out how businesses should operate during the pandemic.

Kemp’s 49-page order continues to prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people, unless social distancing is enforced, and it requires Georgians in long-term care facilities and those deemed “medically fragile” to shelter in place.

It also renews rules that empower local governments and school districts to impose mask requirements, though Kemp has opposed a statewide mandate for face coverings. The new order expires Sept. 15.

Kemp signed the order as state health data shows that confirmed COVID-19 cases have declined in each of the past six weeks. The number of people currently hospitalized in Georgia for COVID-19 also has steadily declined, falling below 2,000 for the first time since early July.

Wary of another post-holiday spike in coronavirus cases, Kemp embarked on a statewide fly-around tour to urge Georgians to take precautions over the Labor Day weekend.

The governor warned that recent gains in the fight against the disease will be reversed if people “let their guard down.”

“This progress can be erased very quickly if we grow complacent and ignore the guidance and public safety measures that we have in place,” he said.

Here’s a look at other major developments related to the coronavirus:

Georgia government plans for vaccine rollout

A task force set up by Kemp will push local officials to have plans in place for distributing a vaccine by November, if one is available.

CDC Director Robert Redfield’s directive to governors, that they should devise plans in time for the election, has sparked outrage from the scientific community, which doubts a valid vaccine can be ready that quickly. Some have said they are worried that political motives are influencing the agency.

“What scares me to death is the thought that we would use our distribution system to distribute something that is neither safe nor effective,” said Mark Rosenberg, who spent 20 years working for the CDC and 16 years as president and chief executive officer of the Task Force for Global Health.

Georgia will have to overcome some hurdles to meet the deadline.Gov. Kemp said Wednesday that the source of funding for a statewide vaccine delivery system hasn’t been determined. And he has state attorneys studying whether changes to Georgia laws will be needed to expedite permits.

He has tapped acting Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John King, a Georgia National Guard major general who has been deployed to other states on pandemic-related missions, to head a panel.

COVID-19 cases spike at colleges in Georgia

COVID-19 cases have surged on some of Georgia’s largest public campuses, impacting nearby communities and leaving school leaders worried about even more cases after the Labor Day holiday.

The University of Georgia reported 821 positive cases between Aug. 24-28 during its first full week of the fall semester. The number was four times higher than the prior five-day total of 189 cases. About one-half of the recent cases were self-reported by students and employees, which is required by the university.

UGA announced it is expanding its isolation housing for students who test positive. The school has set aside nearly 500 dedicated rooms on campus and in the local community for students who are showing symptoms of, have tested positive for, or have come in close contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19.

UGA President Jere Morehead called the increase “concerning.”

“Resist the temptation to organize or attend a large social gathering,” he advised students in a message Wednesday.

At Georgia Tech, which reported 544 positive cases in August, students who live with roommates are urged to live alone to slow the spread of the virus.

Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera advised students not to travel. “I encourage you to find ways to stay connected — just a little farther apart,” Cabrera said.

Georgia College in Milledgeville and Georgia Southern in Statesboro each reported more than 500 positive cases in August.

Cobb Schools announce plan to reopen

The Cobb County School District will begin reopening classrooms for in-person learning next month — a decision the superintendent said was based on improving coronavirus statistics.

The district announced Thursday that kindergarten through fifth-grade students will be the first to return on October 5. Special education classes for kindergarten through 12th grade also will have an in-person option in the first phase of the reopening. When classes resume, after-school programs for those students also will be offered.

Students and staff will be required to wear masks on buses and in buildings, including when they are in classes. Educators will have to wear them whenever possible while teaching, Cobb County Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said in a video message.

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Georgia’s oversight of long-term care shaky as COVID-19 cases jump

By Carrie Teegardin, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

State inspectors fanned out across Georgia this summer to conduct federally-required checks of infection-control protocols at every nursing home, reporting few problems.

But when August arrived, the numbers told a different story: It was the worst month yet for COVID-19 deaths and infections at Georgia’s facilities caring for vulnerable seniors.

In Laurens County, the local newspaper was packed with obituaries and residents were expressing grave concerns about conditions at the Dublinair Health and Rehab nursing home, Commission Chairwoman Brenda Chain said. At least 102 residents and 51 staff have tested positive and 24 residents have died —nearly all since early August. “With this being a small town and everything, just about everybody knows somebody that this has affected,” Chain said.

In Newton County, public officials got copies of an anonymous letter from a “relative” asking for an external investigation of the Riverside Health Care Center. Reports now show that an outbreak in the nursing home that began in early July has ballooned as of Tuesday to 102 residents testing positive and 32 residents dying.

In Atlanta, while Dunwoody Health and Rehabilitation Center had reported it was virtually COVID-free until mid-July, family members described cases of malnutrition, unexpected deaths, unanswered phone calls and callous demands to immediately send a funeral home to pick up their loved ones’ remains. Reports now show 118 residents and 63 staff have tested positive, and 28 residents have died.

“I don’t know how that facility is still in existence,” said Khalid Rashied, who pulled his mother out of the facility, fearing she wouldn’t survive.

Because of the risk of the coronavirus, for nearly six months families have been barred from making routine visits to check on loved ones in long-term care homes. Representatives of Georgia’s long-term care ombudsman’s office have been locked out, too.

Those tight limits mean that at one of the most dangerous times in history to live in a senior care facility, oversight has been left primarily up to a Georgia agency that has struggled for years to keep a close watch on nursing homes, assisted living facilities and personal care homes.

Georgia lags behind every state but one in completing standard inspections of nursing homes on time, the AJC found. While the reports are supposed to be done annually, federal records show that 42 percent of the state’s nursing homes — 152 facilities — have not undergone a comprehensive inspection for at least 18 months, and some for more than two years.

ExploreLawmaker says nursing homes need ‘granny cams’

Georgia also was called out in 2017 as among the nation’s worst at investigating complaints that patients may be at imminent risk of serious injury or death.

The lagging inspections could leave patients at risk in a state that has one of the nation’s highest shares of nursing homes with poor records. One in 4 Georgia nursing homes are rated as well below average, or 1-star, in the federal system.

Shortcomings are widespread as well in the state’s assisted living and personal care homes, the AJC found in an investigation last year.

The state Department of Community Health, the agency responsible for oversight, said delays in inspections are due to a shortage of inspectors and its suspension of routine inspections at the start of the pandemic, which created a backlog. Of the 57 “surveyor” positions Georgia has to inspect nursing homes, 24 are vacant.

ExploreThe ‘Unprotected’ investigative series on senior care homes

DCH also said it followed federal guidance in March to focus only on infection control checks and complaints where residents could be in immediate jeopardy. It did most of that work remotely through the spring.

DCH resumed on-site inspections after the federal government in June ordered states to do so by July 31 to look for infection control issues. Georgia was among the last states to inspect all homes, using outside vendors to help.

DCH said it is complying with a recent federal directive to conduct quick onsite visits at homes that report new outbreaks. DCH said it is also conducting complaint investigations now and coordinating with federal “strike force” teams inspecting nursing homes.

But so far, at least, the state has released to the public only a handful of reports citing homes for violations, even as deadly new outbreaks continue. Residents of long-term care facilities make up about 40 percent of the state’s overall COVID-19 deaths, and the August death count for senior care residents was higher than any month of the pandemic.

Some families say the state must be missing something.

Rashied said while his mother was at the Dunwoody Health nursing home for rehab after breaking a bone, he would call regularly to check on her. But the phone usually went unanswered. He said he was told she would be tested weekly for COVID-19 after being exposed to another resident who tested positive, but she apparently wasn’t, he said. A test done on the day she left was positive, but Rashied wasn’t told of the results for two days. He said his mother was so drugged up when he picked her up from the home she was unable to talk, eat or even sit up, and he contends she wasn’t given proper follow-up care for her broken bone.

“I don’t know if there is a worse place I could send my mother to,” Rashied said. “Hell is the only thing I can think of.”

But it turned out that his mother was one of the lucky ones. Unlike at least 28 other residents at the home, she survived.

Dunwoody Health is operated by Atlanta-based SavaSeniorCare, one of the nation’s largest senior care chains. The company attributed the outbreak to the facility’s location in a “highly populated urban area” where there is a heightened exposure to COVID-19. The company said it was working hard to control the outbreak, but said the pandemic is difficult to contain in a congregate setting.

”There have been residents who have tested negative for the virus and those who have been asymptomatic,” Sava said. “As a result of our efforts, 69 residents currently at the center have recovered (from COVID-19) in our care.”

With high rates of COVID-19 throughout Georgia, many long-term care operators say it’s almost impossible to block the virus completely since employees must come in and out. Even some of the state’s top-rated homes have had deadly outbreaks, especially early in the pandemic when needed amounts of personal protective equipment and tests were impossible to get. But Georgia’s history of lax oversight increased risks for residents in facilities that have records of infection control violations, inadequate staffing or care violations. Plus, with families locked out, residents of sub-par homes no longer had family members stop by to help and protect them.

Families want answers

The Riverside Health Care Center in Newton County, about 35 miles east of Atlanta in Covington, had reported just one COVID-positive resident until early July, when the numbers started to explode. With cases and deaths rising, public officials say they got the anonymous letter asking for oversight, saying calls to the facility weren’t being answered.

The COVID-19 death toll at the 158-bed home is the second-highest among Georgia nursing homes. Local public health officials said they had provided infection-prevention training both virtually and on-site and that DCH was inspecting the home. But no reports on the inspections have been posted.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulates nearly all nursing homes, told the AJC Thursday that infection-control checks were done at the home in June, July and August in response to the increase but no public reports on the inspections were available yet. It’s unclear when — or even if – state or federal officials will release any details.

A standard survey of the home Feb. 13, before the pandemic hit, cited the home for five deficiencies, including failing to provide a safe, clean and comfortable homelike environment.

The nursing home did not respond to calls from the AJC, and its website doesn’t include the kind of COVID-19 update that many nursing homes provide online. Marcello Banes, the Newton County Commission chairman, said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by what was happening at the home. He called the situation at Riverside “unacceptable.”

The home has a 1-star federal quality rating, the lowest on the federal scale.

“I don’t know how that facility is still in existence.”

– Khalid Rashied, who pulled his mother out of Dunwoody Health and Rehabilitation Center, where 28 residents have died from COVID-19

At Dublinair Health and Rehab, about two hours south of Atlanta, the outbreak has been sudden and furious. Of the 24 COVID-19 deaths at the home, 23 were reported in August. Local officials said both public health officials and DCH inspectors had been on-site. But no reports had been released. Dublinair also has a 1-star rating.

The 149-bed home appears to have no website, and the administrator did not respond to calls from the AJC.

Bobby Pope, a pastor who officiated the funeral for his father-in-law, a Dublinair resident who died in July, said it’s been difficult to get information from the facility or to get an answer to calls. The family was allowed to enter wearing protective equipment when the death was imminent. He said they were told the cause of death was pneumonia. “Somebody needs to get in there and check to see what is going on,” said Pope, whose mother-in-law is also a resident there.

Chain, the Laurens County Commission chairwoman, said county health officials and DCH were working with the facility to try to contain the outbreak. CMS said inspections were conducted at the home in June and August, but no inspections reports were yet available.

The most recent standard inspection of Dublinair was in September 2018, when among the violations were infection prevention and control issues, government records show.

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Georgia government plans for COVID vaccine rollout by Nov. 1

By Johnny Edwards, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

A task force set up by Gov. Brian Kemp will push to meet the CDC’s deadline for having COVID-19 vaccine doses ready to distribute in time for the November election.

But the directive, issued to governors last week by CDC Director Robert Redfield, has sparked outrage from the scientific community, which doubts a valid vaccine can be ready that quickly and worries that political motives influenced the agency.

“What scares me to death is the thought that we would use our distribution system to distribute something that is neither safe nor effective,” said Mark Rosenberg, who spent 20 years working for the CDC and 16 years as president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health.

Georgia will have to overcome some hurdles to meet the deadline.Gov. Kemp said Wednesday that the source of funding for a statewide vaccine delivery system hasn’t been determined, and he has state attorneys studying whether changes to Georgia laws will be needed to expedite permits. He has tapped acting Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John King, a major general in the Georgia National Guard who has been deployed to other states on pandemic-related missions, to head a panel to “put all the nuts and bolts together.”

“We’re looking at the logistics: Where it’s going to be, where it needs to go, who’s going to get it,” Kemp said.

The Atlanta-based CDC told state health agencies a month ago that as part of Operation Warp Speed, they should have plans for vaccine distribution drafted by Oct. 1 “to coincide with earliest possible release of COVID-19 vaccine.” Redfield’s Aug. 27 letter asked governors to expedite or consider waiving permitting requirements so that the McKesson Corporation, a pharmaceutical company contracting with the CDC, can have distribution centers operating in their states by Nov. 1.

The letter was sent the same day that President Trump spoke of a vaccine possibly arriving before the end of the year “or maybe even sooner” in a speech to the Republican National Convention.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Maj. Gen. King told the AJC on Thursday that he’s not concerning himself with whether the deadline is politically motivated.

“The bottom line is, if the vaccines are ready, then we have to move heaven and earth to get these vaccines to Georgians,” King said. “If it could be done sooner, I want it sooner.”

King said the task force will include Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, Community Health Commissioner Frank Berry and Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency Director Chris Stallings.

Vaccines supplies will likely be very limited at first, Redfield said on Aug. 28, even though manufacturers have already been producing doses before any vaccine has been authorized. So the first priority will be health care workers and first responders, then later those at greatest risk. Other priorities are still being determined.

King said Georgia’s distribution system could involve a combination of sites operated by Public Health and doses provided to major healthcare systems such as Grady Health and Augusta University Health.

“We’re looking at multiple ways to deliver this,” the acting insurance commissioner said. “No one community is the same as another.”

Public health experts told the AJC they have no qualms with the CDC encouraging states to begin devising ways to administer vaccine shots to millions of people. But some said Redfield’s setting a distribution date two days before Election Day is yet another blow to the agency’s credibility. Before his letter to governors came to light this week, the CDC had been under fire for new testing guidance that said people exposed to the disease but who don’t have symptoms don’t necessarily need to be tested — viewed as lining up with Trump’s stated desire for less testing.

Neither the CDC nor the White House immediately responded to requests for comment for this story.

Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, a national organization of health professionals that lobbies at the federal level, said Trump could claim to have a vaccine before the election, whether he really does or not.

States, meanwhile, must quickly grapple with an array of logistical challenges for a hypothetical vaccine.

» RELATED: COVID-19 can cause strange, unpredictable health problems that linger for months

» MORE: Robert Pattinson reportedly tests positive for COVID-19; ‘The Batman’ halted

Most medical offices don’t have the type of cold storage needed to store one of the three vaccines being developed, Benjamin said. That vaccine requires sub-zero temperatures.

Complications could arise if the vaccine requires specialized needles and syringes. And in the coming cold months, elderly residents might steer clear of drive-in vaccination sites that expose them to the elements.

“This is the group that’s unable to do the adequate contract tracing. And you want them now to pivot and give vaccinations?” Benjamin said. “I don’t think this vaccine’s going to ready for prime time until after the first of the year, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to begin making sure the infrastructure’s in place to deliver it.”

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said a COVID-19 vaccine could be ready sooner than expected if ongoing clinical trials of 30,000 people produce overwhelmingly positive results and a data and safety monitoring board allows ending the trials early.

Experts who spoke with the AJC raised concerns about a rushed vaccine making more effective ones difficult to approve in the future, or of vaccinated people potentially being re-infected more severely.

Rosenberg, the former head of the Task Force for Global Health, said people may not trust a vaccine that’s viewed as driven by politics. Some parents who are already distrustful of vaccines might start rejecting them altogether.

“It will increase the percent of vaccine hesitant people from maybe 50% to 95%,” Rosenberg said. “And for the first time ever, we will be moving our children in our population from herd immunity to herd susceptibility.”

Gov. Kemp said the distribution program will include an awareness campaign to get the public comfortable with the new vaccine. The governor spoke of returning to normalcy.

“You’ve got to build confidence back for people who want to go to a restaurant, want to go to a convention center, want to do business travel again,” Kemp said. “They’re getting more and more comfortable every day going out — not everybody is, and if they don’t, they don’t need to. But I think with a vaccine, it surely would help with that confidence to get people moving more than they are right now.”

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Deluxe Corporation to bring 700 jobs to Sandy Springs; average pay $91K

By Adrianne Murchison, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

Cookerly Public Relations and a Sandy Springs official confirmed Thursday that Deluxe CEO Barry McCarthy and Georgia officials will make a formal announcement at a press event Sept. 9 at the Georgia State Capitol.

McCarthy will comment on how his company will benefit the local economy at the press conference, Cookerly said in an email.

Minnesota-based Deluxe is well known for making paper checks — the company says founder W.R. Hotchkiss invented the checkbook more than a century ago — but it also helps other businesses with financial services including solutions to operating more effectively in a digital world.

Deluxe already has about 200 employees in Georgia. In August, a company statement said their current location in Atlanta focuses on administrative, product development, engineering, and payments and remittance. The company also has a warehouse in Americus and a warehouse and custom printing operation in Lithia Springs.

In Sandy Springs, the company would spend $10 million on building construction and $2 million on furniture and fixtures, Economic Development Director Andrea Worthy said during an August City Council meeting. Employees would move into the 172,000 square foot office later this year or early 2021, she said.

Sandy Springs would not disclose which city the tech office is moving from, or where the new office would be located in Sandy Springs.

The city agreed to waive as much as $255,000 in permit and business license fees depending on the length of the company’s office lease.

Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson has not disclosed what incentives the state and Fulton County have offered to the corporation.

In apparent anticipation of post-pandemic times, Sandy Springs said the company would benefit the local economy by hosting clients weekly who would stay in local hotels and patronize area restaurants.

Economist Tom Smith of the Goizueta School at Emory University said the new Deluxe office is a win for Sandy Springs and the surrounding area considering the number of businesses closing nationwide due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Smith said time will reveal if Georgia benefits from any incentives that might’ve been offered to Deluxe.

“If this company has long-term plans to be a part of Georgia’s economy, those are generally good things,” he said. “Usually, its not a huge win right away … But they could influence other companies to come to the area.”

The relocation to Sandy Springs was somewhat secret until early August. It was referred to as Project Painted Lady until Deluxe approved the release of the company name.

Sandy Springs spokesperson Sharon Kraun was hopeful, Thursday, that Deluxe employees would live as well as work in the city she described as being in an ideal location for business.

“We’re a hub,” Kraun said. “Access is great. We are thrilled that they are coming. It’s growth for the economy and good for the corporate and residential environment.”

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One of DeKalb’s COVID-19 testing sites will be open on Labor Day

By Tyler Estep, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

One of the free COVID-19 testing sites run by the DeKalb County Board of Health will be open on Labor Day.

Officials said the site at 5597 Buford Highway NE in Doraville (the paring lot of a former K-Mart store) will be open from 9 a.m. to noon on Monday.

The county’s other two locations — at Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta and the former Sam’s Club on Turner Hill Road in Stonecrest — will be closed for the holiday.

The health department, which had operated six or more testing sites at various points of the coronavirus pandemic, recently consolidated its operations to three locations. District health director Dr. Elizabeth Ford said the move would allow the department to serve more people at a larger Stonecrest site and, ultimately, resume normal clinical operations at health centers that were closed at the start of the pandemic.

During non-holiday weeks, the new Stonecrest location is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.

The other two sites are open for testing from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Testing at health department locations is free and open to anyone. Pre-registration is strongly encouraged and can be completed by visiting dekalbhealth.net or calling 404-294-3700, Option 1.

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Metro Atlanta schools facing laptop shortage and outraged parents

By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

When Mundy’s Mills High School started online classes last month, Rashad Bivens struggled because he hadn’t yet been issued a laptop. He tried using his personal computer for coursework, but it often failed to connect to his classes or download assignments.

“I can’t do any work so I am not passing some of my classes,” the 17-year-old senior said Tuesday as the 55,000-student Clayton County School District begin distributing 41,000 laptops ordered in May. Bivens, one of the recipients, said his teachers promised to give him time to catch up on his schoolwork.

A nationwide laptop shortage created largely by the shift to online classes is challenging districts across the metro Atlanta area. They’re waiting on thousand of orders, from less expensive Chromebooks to more robust computers that can handle the volume and heavy use involved with online learning.

Chris Ragsdale, superintendent of the nearly 112,000-student Cobb County school system said during a recent Facebook Live meeting that his district has given out more than 30,000 devices so far this academic year, but is still unable to meet demand. Thousands of more laptops are on order.

“But … every other school in the country has also tried ordering the same devices,” he said. “So there is going to be a delay.”

Some area school districts say they have distributed most of the laptops they have on hand, including some aging devices patched together with newer software.

Craig Hill, a professor in the College of Business at Clayton State University, likened the situation of technology companies today to producers of toilet paper and hand sanitizer at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Demand for their products grew so quickly that it overwhelmed their ability to match the desired supply.

“The supply chain takes some time to react,” he said. “Laptop demand is usually as stable as you can get, like toilet paper and refrigerators.”

Jennifer Darling-Aduana, an assistant professor in learning technologies at Georgia State University, said the lack of laptops will have an even greater impact on lower-income communities, who already are working from a deficit.

“We know that students who are less likely to have devices or internet access are from lower-income, minority backgrounds that can have some profound equity implications,” she said.

School districts say it’s often unclear when the laptops will arrive. Across the nation, shipments expected in August and September are increasingly being pushed back to October and November.

Three of the biggest computer manufacturers — HP, Lenovo and Dell — have said they are short 5 million laptops, according to the Associated Press.

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Many parents are frustrated with the hold up.

Tabitha Isom said she and her two children — a senior in the Gwinnett County School District and a 7th grader at a private academy — are sharing two personal computers. Because Isom works from home, when she needs a device, one of her children uses a cellphone to connect to classes.

“That’s been the headache for me and my family,” she said. “Even if you go to the store and try to buy a laptop, they tell you they’re all out. … It has been a roller coaster.”

She added: “All of this should have been thought out before school started.”

Gwinnett County Schools, the largest district in the state at about 180,000 students, said it has distributed as many as 50,000 Chromebooks this year, including around 5,000 older laptops that have been updated with Chromebook hardware and software. Another 19,000 Chromebooks were recently ordered after the district’s school board approved the expenditure in August.

Diane Minor, a Gwinnett resident with a son in the eighth grade, said even if you have a laptop issued by the school system, it may perform poorly.

“The one my son has is slow and the software wasn’t updated,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

DeKalb County School is hoping to pick up about 27,000 computers next week. The city of Atlanta Schools is acquiring 40,000 laptops it will lease for nearly $25 million over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Fulton County Schools distributed nearly 60,000 devices to students in grades 3 through 12 over the summer, but still has about 6,000 devices they need to give out, district spokesman Brian Noyes said. Fulton had planned to get laptops for students to second graders after Labor Day, but “that has been slightly delayed due to the market demands,” he said.

Gwinnett, like other districts, is using its school foundation and support from philanthropic organizations to raise money to meet its technology needs. But several people pushed back on appeals for donations, saying the lack of enough laptops was plainly poor planning.

Not all counties are struggling. Henry County Schools and Marietta City Schools said they had enough laptops to cover their student bodies, though both systems were still trying to get enough Wi-Fi hot spots for students without internet to use.

Henry, for instance, used $36 million from a 2017 E-SPLOST to buy laptops and iPads for students in the third through 12th grades.

Kristen Kline, who has an 11th grader and a 7th grader in Clayton County schools, said she was happy to pick up two Chromebooks because only one child had initially been supplied a device. The other child was using the family’s home computer for school.

“I’m excited because this frees up my desktop,” she said.

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Gwinnett leaders agree to buy Lawrenceville water system

By Arielle Kass, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

Gwinnett County will buy the city of Lawrenceville’s water system.

County commissioners approved the sale Tuesday, after the city council passed the measure the day before.

The county will pay $400,000 for the system, and give an Ezzard Street property that houses a pump station to the city. Additionally, the county has pledged to spend more than $13 million in repairs to the aging system over the next decade.

Gwinnett will take over the system Dec. 1.

Gwinnett bought Lawrenceville’s sewer system in 1988, and Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said the water system purchase was an example of the agreements that can be made if governments look broadly at what is best for communities. Lawrenceville was already buying 80% of its water from the county.

The sale will increase rates slightly for residents, but lower them for businesses. The city will use the county’s payment to provide a $60 credit for residential customers, which should cover a year’s worth of increases.

The sale includes water mains, valves, hydrants and meters as well as billing systems, customer water usage data, easements and GIS data. Lawrenceville will retain all wells, storage tanks and water treatment plants.

 

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Fulton and mayors continue to negotiate over $104M of COVID-19 money

By Ben Brasch, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

With their legal threat still looming, the mayors of 13 Fulton County cities want more coronavirus relief money from the county government, along with a breakdown of how the county has spent its $104 million allotment of federal funds.

City leaders are skeptical that all the money has been well-spent. They say their cities deserve more than the $15 million the county has promised to them collectively, because Fulton received the money based on population and basically every Fulton resident lives in one of their cities.

County officials argue that their use of COVID-19 relief money helps all Fulton residents.

But the mayors feel so disrespected by being left out of the process they have threatened to file a request for an injunction that would stop Fulton from spending any more Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money.

The injunction, which hasn’t been filed, would include all but two Fulton cities: Atlanta, which received a direct CARES Act allotment of $88.5 million; and Mountain Park, because it has had no direct COVID-19 expenses for its roughly 550 Northside residents.

The county made an offer to the mayors this week, but it was rejected. It’s unclear how much was offered.

“There is no real trust between the cities and the county right now,” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, who represents the Northside mayors, said Thursday.

‘It’s itchy’

Four counties in the state — Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett — had enough residents to receive direct CARES Act allotments. Leaders of the 48 municipalities in those counties worried whether their relief funding would come from the state or the counties.

After months of concern, Gov. Brian Kemp in July told those cities to ask their counties for money.

DeKalb County alone is giving $32.6 million to its cities, but Fulton is different from the other three counties because it is almost entirely made up of municipalities following the cityhood movement of the 2000s.

Now, the only unincorporated part of the county is a 7.5-mile stretch of Fulton Industrial Boulevard, which is home to roughly 500 of Fulton’s 1 million residents.

Cities have been asking for money since Fulton learned about the $104 million in April. But Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts has maintained that he didn’t know he had to reserve so much for cities directly, and Fulton had to spend fast to tamp down the virus.

Fulton’s chief financial officer Sharon Whitmore said Wednesday that, with the $15 million that commissioners have already reserved for the cities, the county has allotted all of its $104 million.

But the numbers aren’t concrete.

Fulton officials met with mayors on a private call Monday in which the county offered to give them an undisclosed amount of previously budgeted CARES money.

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Bodker said the plan didn’t work for the mayors — they didn’t want to be the “bad guy” taking money from vital pandemic line items. He declined to say what the services were. Eventually, he said, the cities will have to make a proposal, but they don’t know enough about the county’s spending yet to do so.

This follows a meeting that Bodker called between the mayors and the Fulton Board of Commissioners on Friday, which turned into a rare public verbal lashing. Mayors told county leaders they had been bad partners who had withheld and possibly misspent some of the federal money, questioning why they have used hundreds of thousands of dollars on things like vehicles.

The mayors added to their list of concerns this week the unknown amount of money spent on residents of Atlanta, which received its own $88.5 million CARES Act allotment. Bodker said Atlanta should use some of its money to reimburse Fulton, claiming anything else would be “double-dipping.”

He said this is not about cities getting money, rather wanting a city-by-city breakdown to make sure the money is spent well. But uncovering how the county has spent the money has only led to new worries for the mayors.

“The more we scratch, the more we learn it’s itchy,” Bodker said.

County officials discuss issue in closed-door session

Both sides agree that better communication could have avoided wasteful duplicated services in the middle of a pandemic. For example, one of the mayors during the fiery Friday call said they don’t need the cache of personal protective equipment that Fulton has spent millions amassing.

It seems like the county took that to heart. During the Wednesday commission meeting, County Manager Dick Anderson said they might stop giving PPE to the cities. Fulton has been using its size as buying power to get better prices.

“I did not want us to get further down a path if cities did not feel like PPE was of interest to them, which was expressed on the Friday conference call,” he said.

When questioned by Commissioner Liz Hausmann about not giving the life-saving gear to cities, Anderson and Pitts said anything regarding the disagreement with the mayors would have to be discussed in a closed-door executive session because of “potential litigation.”

The executive session lasted more than an hour Wednesday.

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County Attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker said the state’s Open Records law protects discussions “in the nature of settlement of a dispute for threatened litigation” even if nothing has been filed.

Adding to the pressure in this fight: The $104 million must be spent by Dec. 30, or the money goes back to Washington.

In Johns Creek, Bodker wants to use the money on small-business grants.

“We’ll be lucky if our hotels survive,” he said. However, Fulton has offered such grants countywide.

Bodker said he wants to figure this out in two weeks to give cities time to help residents.

“Whatever number we get, we have to be able to put it to use or we defeat the purpose of the CARES Act,” he said.