It began with two confirmed cases in Georgia, but over the span of about 10 months quickly ballooned to infect more than half-a-million people across the state.
As New Year’s Day approaches, nearly 10,000 lives in Georgia have been lost to the pandemic-inducing novel coronavirus and countless hospital beds have been filled with sick patients.
Hart County added 200 cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks as of Tuesday, according to the Department of Public Health, and has seen a total of 1,111 cases since the DPH began tracking the data. The number of deaths from the disease locally is still at 20 and 11 additional deaths are listed as “probable” COVID-19 deaths. There were 133 active cases in Hart County as of Wednesday.
More than one-quarter of people who were tested for COVID-19 in Hart County last week received positive results. The testing percent positivity rate, which the DPH says can indicate the level of community spread, was 28.8 percent between Dec. 19 and Dec. 25, which is an increase of six percent from the previous week. Hart County was among the top-10 counties in the state for highest percent positivity rate in that time period.
The majority of news, in local, state and national media in 2020 has been consumed by coverage of COVID-19 and its affects on daily life, the economy and local communities.
But as Georgia and the rest of the country continue to battle COVID-19, a vaccine is beginning to be distributed and hope is on the horizon.
Looking back on an up-and down 2020, there were inspiring moments nonetheless here locally as the community braced for and dealt with the unknown virus threat.
Virus hits Hart
Gov. Brian Kemp announced the first two confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Georgia on March 2, saying two members of the same Fulton County household had been diagnosed.
Nearly a month later, on Tuesday, March 31, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported four cases of COVID-19 infecting patients in Hart County.
A week prior to those first local infections, the Hart County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a local emergency declaration that reached beyond Kemp’s executive order for the “medically fragile” to isolate themselves and asked all county residents to stay at home except for essential trips. The meeting was more than two-hours long and was held at the Hart County Courthouse on March 24 where local government leaders from Hartwell and other municipalities gathered to discuss the issue in a setting where they could adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Around Hart County, the response continued, with grocery stores manning the carts to wipe them down with disinfectant before allowing customers to use them. Businesses considered non-essential were closed or were adhering to social distancing requirements and restaurant dining rooms were closed, only serving food through takeout or delivery. Those were measures included in the local declaration of emergency.
In early April, Kemp signed an executive order banning gatherings, shuttering non-essential businesses, and ordering residents to stay at home unless it was essential to leave. The order also stripped power from local governments by superceding the jumble of local orders or ordinances already in effect throughout the state.
Public meetings were soon livestreamed to Youtube channels or other social media, or like the Hartwell City Council, were held via teleconference with the public able to phone-in to the conversation.
Annual community celebrations like the Lake Hartwell Antique Boat Festival, Cars and Guitars Festival and the Pre-Fourth Fireworks Celebration, were all nixed due to the pandemic.
Case numbers remained relatively low in Hart County until mid-summer when the daily number of new cases hit 15 on July 31, a high for Hart at the time.
The number of infections dipped back down in September and early October, but hit new highs locally after Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Case numbers continued to rise and still are, hitting a new single-day record on Christmas Eve with 32 new cases added that day in Hart County.
Local long-term care facilities, housing some of the most vulnerable residents, were hit hard by the virus early.
Despite precautions, including enhanced cleaning, mask-wearing and visitor restrictions, COVID-19 still made its way into local facilities. The Sun reported on May 7 that three Hartwell Health and Rehabilitation staff members had tested positive for the virus.
Several more staff members at Hartwell Health and Rehabilitation tested positive the following week. The Sun then reported on May 21 that mass testing revealed at least nine residents had the virus.
The Sun reported on July 2 that 10 of the infected residents had recovered at Hartwell Health and Rehabilitation, but two staff members at Hart Care Center had tested positive.
Not even a month later, Hart Care Center reported its first virus death, with 33 residents and 17 staff members testing positive, The Sun reported on July 30.
The Sun reported the next week that five residents at Brookdale Hartwell had died from the virus.
As of Monday, Dec. 28, five residents at Hart Care Center, five residents at Brookdale Hartwell and two residents at Hartwell Health and Rehabilitation have died from COVID-19, according to the Department of Community Health.
Acts of kindness were seen all throughout the community as local folks responded to the virus.
Southern Hart Brewing Company owner Suzanne Barfield said in March she saw many good deeds done through the brewery. Multiple people called, purchased gift cards and asked that they be donated to someone who needs them, she said. The same was noted on social media at other local restaurants as well.
A joint effort between the Hart County Chamber of Commerce and Hartwell Main Street that started in August offered a chance to win prizes in exchange for folks shopping locally. The social media campaign asked local patrons to post photos on social media with stickers and signs provided by the chamber and Mainstreet declaring that they shop or dine locally. Participants could tag the business in the post and use the hashtag, #wereinthistogether, and the person who posted would be entered to win a monthly prize giveaway.
A local quilting group, Quilters from the Hart, as well as other individuals and groups locally, put their resources together and began producing masks for hospitals and nursing homes to use in April.
Hart County schools first closed in-person learning in March, finishing the school year with online instruction and even postponing graduation until the middle of summer.
Spring sports were quickly canceled in March by the Georgia High School Association too, costing many seniors their last season of high school sports. But teams were allowed to begin conditioning again in July under strict Georgia High School Association-imposed restrictions. Even though the season was delayed, football games were still held, albeit with several game cancellations and schedule changes due to the virus and its impacts on football programs.
On July 13, the Hart County Board of Education unanimously approved a plan for returning to in-person instruction, which included the option for students to participate in virtual learning. About 23 percent of students in the school system registered to learn virtually in the fall semester.
The school system has seen numerous cases of the virus, and at one point had 337 students who were quarantined for possible exposure to the virus. A week before the school system closed early for holiday break due to inadequate staffing, 16 employees, or 3.1 percent of employees, were positive for COVID-19.
The virus also took the most serious toll on two employees. Elton Payne, 64, of Bowersville a bus driver for decades at the school system, died Sept. 30 after a battle with the virus.
More recently, on Dec. 20, Hart County Middle School teacher Kelley Gaines, 47, of Hartwell, died after developing pneumonia in her fight against COVID-19. Gaines taught STEM, was the Technology Student Association advisor and was the 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year at the middle school.
Gaines’ husband Greg, who also teaches in Hart County, posted on social media regularly during Kelley’s time on a ventilator at a hospital in Seneca, S.C. He has since posted about her legacy.
“Kelley wanted the love of Jesus spread around the world,” Greg Gaines posted recently on Facebook. “She started with her family and then her local community. I believe the central theme of her life was just love people no matter who they are. Show them Jesus through love.”
Surviving the virus
While most people who contract COVID-19 will experience mild symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, others struggle with life-threatening complications.
The severity of the virus differs person-to-person. According to the CDC, the risk of severe disease increases steadily as people age and people of all ages with underlying medical conditions, including but not limited to heart disease, diabetes or lung disease, appear to be at higher risk in developing severe COVID-19 compared to those without these conditions.
The Sun reported multiple survival stories where patients were hospitalized and feared for their lives, but made it through to tell about the experience.
Hartwell resident Richard Frady spent 42 days in the intensive care unit at AnMed Hospital battling the disease that he fell ill with in late March. The 67-year-old was admitted with a 104-degree fever, a bad cough and body aches.
But on May 30, The Sun reported Frady was released from a rehab facility and was back in the care of his wife, Sally Frady, who hadn’t seen him in person in weeks.
Another Hartwell resident, 43-year-old Sherry Alexander, shared her survival story with The Sun as well.
In May, Alexander said she thought she was going to die lying on her floor gasping for air. What she thought was just a sinus infection turned out to be COVID-19.
The persistent headaches were among the worst symptoms for Alexander. She described the illness as feeling like the flu, but 100 times worse, with a really bad sinus headache and an upper-respiratory infection on top of it. A lack of taste and smell were present in Alexander when she first started feeling sick.
Alexander said at the time she wanted people to take the virus seriously.
“Stay away from people. That’s the main thing,” she said. “If you feel like you’re getting a sinus infection and you’re not sure, cause you don’t know at first with allergies down here in Georgia, go ahead and stay away from people.”