HIAWASSEE, Ga- Towns County Schools announced Tuesday, March 17, that an elementary school teacher who was thought to have possibly contracted COVID-19 received a negative test result. The Towns County resident was transferred from Chatuge Regional Hospital in Hiawassee to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville overnight on Monday, March 16, with severe symptoms resembling the virus.
“The Towns County Elementary School teacher who was tested for COVID-19/Coronavirus has received a negative test result,” School Superintendent Darren Berrong stated. “We are pleased to announce that the teacher does not have the virus and is beginning to feel better.”
Towns County Schools made the suspected virus case known on their social media page, March 16, as a precaution due to the rapid rate of spread of the virus.
“Towns County Schools learned early today that an Elementary School teacher was tested for the Coronavirus this morning.,” the school board stated March 16. “Results for the test can take up to 72 hours and we will inform everyone as we get more information. Please understand that this is NOT a confirmed case of the virus. Elementary School Employees were informed to stay home and keep their distance from parents, grandparents, and elderly populations until the test results come back. Our suggestion is the same for parents and students who were in the Elementary School last week. This is not a time for panic, but a time for wisdom. Be smart, keep your distance from other people, wash your hands religiously, and monitor yourself and children for any symptoms. Working together as a community, we can minimize the effects of this virus in Towns County. Once we learn the results of the test, a decision on what school will look like for the next 3 weeks will be made and passed on to you.”
As of March 17, no confirmed COVID-19 cases are present in Towns County.
“TCEMA (Towns County Emergency Management Agency) is monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak and is connected in real-time with our local, state, and federal partners,” TCEMA Director Brandon Walls said on Tuesday. “We are working around the clock to monitor, mitigate, and respond to all situations. Proper management includes proper education. We will continue to update the public regarding potential and actual COVID-19 cases in an effort to reduce the spread of false information.”
Walls additionally suggested that concerned citizens visit the Department of Public Health’s website.
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – A wife and mother quarantined with her family to monitor for COVID-19 in Towns County reached out to FYN on Sunday afternoon, March 15, to share her story, stressing the importance of transparency with the public in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. Shannon Baldwin-Nguyen — the spouse of Thanh Nguyen, a Fulton County firefighter who was exposed to the virus when responding to an infected patient — had several pertinent messages for the local community.
Rather than separate from Nguyen while the veteran firefighter self-monitors for the onset of symptoms, the family decided to quarantine as a unit for the 14-day period required. The quarantined family consists of the couple and their four children, two of whom attend college and a daughter who attends Towns County Schools.
Shannon Baldwin-Nguyen assured that none of her children visited the school campus following her husband’s exposure to the virus and that the family self-quarantined immediately upon Nguyen’s arrival in Towns County on March 10. “Whenever we were notified that he was going to be on home quarantine, I called (Towns County Schools Superintendent) Dr. Berrong and let him know,” Baldwin-Nguyen explained. “I didn’t want anyone at the school to have questions as to whether she had exposed anyone. We have two in college and they did the same. They contacted the administration and their employer to inform them of the situation. The college students are doing their assignments via email and not going to work.”
Baldwin-Nguyen said that their food supply is beginning to run low but the family has relatives who have delivered additional supplies to their driveway.
“We have four children at home so I’ve always bought more than most because of that,” Baldwin-Nguyen said.” I didn’t go out and buy more on Monday night whenever they put them in quarantine. He arrived here at this home around 2 a.m. Tuesday. We have multiple homes, but the one in Hiawassee is the one that I keep fully stocked so that is why he is here. We felt as a family that we should be together.”
The family, who is on day 6 in isolation, is not experiencing any indication of COVID-19 at this time. Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who became Georgia’s first Asian firefighter, is reporting his daily health conditions to the proper authorities. “He had a video-chat with the physician during the week,” Baldwin-Nguyen told FYN. “I can’t stress how impressed I am with The City of South Fulton Fire Department, I’ve been through almost 50 years of being in the fire department family with my daddy and husband so I’ve witnessed a lot. The new chief did a great job after finding out that his firefighters were exposed.”
Nguyen and his family were not advised to test for the virus unless they begin to exhibit symptoms.
Towns County Emergency Management Agency assured that there are no other known quarantined individuals in Towns County as of March 15, and no confirmed cases of the virus.
“Towns county government and emergency services continue to learn and prepare,” Towns County EMA Director Brandon Walls issued in a statement to FYN. “We want to remind citizens that we currently have no active cases of COVID-19 in Towns County. We understand that one individual was exposed while working in a public safety role in another county and is on home quarantine within Towns County, please be aware that this poses no risk to other individuals. We ask that you take part in preventing the spread of this virus by being mindful of your health and hygiene, and educating yourself from credible sources.”
FYN contacted Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw who stated that he was made aware of the quarantine situation last week by Towns County EMA. FYN intends to remain in remote contact with the Nguyen family throughout what will hopefully be the final week of their ordeal.
“It’s our duty that everyone works together to keep the spread of germs to a minimum,” Baldwin-Nguyen said. “We knew that this would get out and feel that it’s best if information comes from us as opposed to assumptions.” Towns County EMA, along with the Ngutgen family, urged residents who may experience symptoms related to COVID-19 to alert 911 dispatch prior to the arrival of emergency responders.
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – FYN learned from Towns County EMA on Monday morning, March 16, that a patient suspected of contracting COVID-19 was transferred overnight from Chatuge Regional Hospital in Hiawassee to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, GA.
The patient was described as a female in her 50s.
UPDATED: Towns County Board of Education announced Tuesday morning that the test results were negative for COVID-19.
UPDATED: FYN confirmed that the patient suspected of contracting the virus is an elementary school teacher at Towns County Schools.
“Towns County Schools learned early today that an Elementary School teacher was tested for the Coronavirus this morning.,” the school board stated. “Results for the test can take up to 72 hours and we will inform everyone as we get more information. Please understand that this is NOT a confirmed case of the virus. Elementary School Employees were informed to stay home and keep their distance from parents, grandparents, and elderly populations until the test results come back. Our suggestion is the same for parents and students who were in the Elementary School last week. This is not a time for panic, but a time for wisdom. Be smart, keep your distance from other people, wash your hands religiously, and monitor yourself and children for any symptoms. Working together as a community, we can minimize the effects of this virus in Towns County. Once we learn the results of the test, a decision on what school will look like for the next 3 weeks will be made and passed on to you.”
FYN reported this morning that two Towns County EMS responders who assisted the teacher were placed under mandatory quarantine.
“Last night, a Towns County resident was transported to North East Georgia Medical Center from Chatuge Regional Hospital with suspicious symptoms,” Towns County EMA Director Brandon Walls said. “County officials were made aware of the transfer and circumstances late last night. Steps have been taken to mitigate and further exposure possibility. Two EMS employees will be on isolation pending test results. Please remember this is only a suspected case at this time. More information will be posted as available.”
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County officials and health providers gathered in recent days, focused on disseminating information related to COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus. Rhonda Calwell, a registered nurse trained in Infection Control and Prevention with Union General Hospital, held a seminar for the public on March 10, at the Towns County Recreation and Conference Center in Young Harris. The following day, a PowerPoint presentation was led by Towns County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) with local emergency responders in attendance.
FYN spoke with Towns County EMA Director Brandon Walls on Wednesday, March 11. Walls stated that EMA is “closely monitoring” the spread of the virus outbreak. Walls added that the department is involved in “active and heavy situational awareness” with “advice and guidance exchanged between local, state, and federal agencies.” Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw indicated that policies related to the virus outbreak may transpire in coming weeks.
There are no known cases of COVID-19 in Towns or surrounding counties at the time of publication.
On March 10, Towns County Schools announced guidelines stating that students, staff, and any individual who attends or visits the campus must impose a 14-day self-quarantine should they meet certain criteria. If the individual or a house member has traveled outside of the U.S. in the past two weeks, or if they have been in close contact with anyone who has contracted COVID-19, self-monitoring for the onset of virus symptoms is warranted. Students and staff must remain fever-free for a 14-day period prior to their return to campus.
Quarantined students and staff are required to report symptoms associated with COVID-19 to the Department of Public Health (DPH) by dialing 1-866-PUB-HLTH, additionally seeking medical assistance. According to the school’s administration, students will be provided class assignments during the quarantine period, and absences will be excused.
“We’re talking with the school daily,” Walls told FYN. “We’re looking at the response plan to see if changes need to be made.”
Walls stressed that the public should not panic nor “add to the hype” but rather follow CDC and DPH health guidelines and pursue accurate information on the virus.
As of March 10, there were 22 confirmed or presumed cases of COVID-19 in Georgia. While the risk of infection remains relatively low, citizens are urged to take general precautions recommended to reduce the spread of any respiratory illness.
“More cases of COVID-19 are likely to be identified in the United States in the coming days, including more instances of community spread. It’s likely that at some point, widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States will occur,” Georgia’s DPH website states in part. “Widespread transmission of COVID-19 would translate into large numbers of people needing medical care at the same time. Schools, childcare centers, and workplaces, may experience more absenteeism. Mass gatherings may be sparsely attended or postponed. Public health and healthcare systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths. Other critical infrastructure, such as law enforcement, emergency medical services, and sectors of the transportation industry may also be affected. Healthcare providers and hospitals may be overwhelmed.”
Georgia physicians are now capable of ordering tests for COVID-19, and private labs can process the samples.
FYN will continue to update information related to the virus outbreak as developments occur.
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HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Emergency Management Agency – Homeland Security Director Brandon Walls was appointed by Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw to head the county’s loss control program Oct. 15. Walls was named Towns County safety coordinator at the commissioner’s monthly meeting.
“It is expected that department heads will compliment the effort of the safety coordinator to reduce accidents and provide for the safety of the public,” Bradshaw stated.
“Towns County is extremely conscious of the safety of our employees and the citizens of our community. As an employer, we recognize our obligation to ensure the safest possible workplace for our employees. As a governmental entity, we recognize our responsibility to provide a safe environment for the public we serve. It is our belief that most accidents are preventable. In accordance with this belief, we have allocated resources to administer an aggressive loss control program in our municipality.
“All employees are responsible for cooperating with and supporting our loss control program activities and objectives. The health and safety of all employees throughout the county is of primary importance and each department shall endeavor to maintain a safety conscious attitude thoughout its operations.”
Walls was appointed Towns County Emergency Management Agency – Homeland Security Director in June of 2019.
YOUNG HARRIS, Ga. – Towns County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) encourages citizens and first responders with an interest in weather to attend an Oct. 18 SKYWARN training session in Young Harris. The course will cover the importance of storm spotters, the basics of thunderstorms, the relationship between the National Weather Service (NWS) and EMA with the media, basic radar interpretation, identification of potential severe storm features, information on reporting weather observations, and storm spotter safety tips.
SKYWARN storm spotters are an important group of volunteers that report severe weather, winter weather, and resulting damage to the NWS, the organization’s website explains. These reports aid the weather service in accomplishing its mission of “protection of life and property” by providing forecasters essential information of what is occurring at ground level. SKYWARN spotters receive training from the NWS, learning weather safety, storm structure, and reportable criteria. The course is typically held in conjunction with local government or area SKYWARN groups.
“Towns County has been certified as StormReady for several years,” Towns County EMA Director Brandon Walls said. “The recertification cycle is every four years, the last being in 2016.” In order to be recognized as StormReady, a county must meet criteria jointly established between the NWS and state-local emergency management officials. Approximately 230,000 citizens have participated in the SKYWARN program nationwide.
The SKYWARN course is scheduled Friday, Oct. 18, at the Towns County Emergency Operations Center at 1100 Jack Dayton Circle in Young Harris, GA, at 6 pm.
For additional information, contact Towns County EMA at firstname.lastname@example.org
HIAWASSEE, Ga.- According to the American Red Cross, while approximately 38 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood, only about 10 percent of those who are eligible actually donate. The demand for donated blood in our nation’s hospitals, however, is consistently high. It is estimated that roughly 40,000 pints of life-saving blood is used every single day, and the demand never decreases.
A total of 25 individuals signed up to donate blood at the Towns County Public Library, May 30. Towns County Emergency Management Agency hosted the event, and EMA Director and Paramedic Brandon Walls was on hand to sign in participants and answer donors’ questions.
Donated blood is used for a wide range of circumstances that can potentially affect anyone, which is also a primary reason people donate. Patients undergoing treatment for injuries suffered during an accident often rely on donated blood to save their lives. While all blood types are always needed, donations of more rare blood types are especially in demand. For example, people with O negative blood only make up about 8 percent of the population, but their blood can be given to patients of all blood types, making their donors highly needed.
Following an initial assessment which included various questions, along with body temperature, blood pressure, and hemoglobin checks, donors were led to begin the donation process which took approximately 10-15 minutes to complete. Juice and snacks were offered following the procedure in order to hydrate and restore the donors’ blood sugar levels.
Feature Image: Towns County’s FYN reporter, donating blood
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Realistic is the most accurate adjective to describe an active shooter drill which took place in Towns County on the morning of Friday, May 3, 2019. The full-scale training, directed jointly by the Georgia Mountains Healthcare Coalition and the Northeast Georgia Health System, was designed primarily to test the response of emergency medical providers.
The mock scenario took place outside of Dr. Samuel Church’s office, located behind Zaxby’s restaurant, off State Route 76 in eastern Hiawassee. “Victims” were staged – complete with graphic, cosmetic injuries – at various points throughout the crime scene. Some were in open view, while others were in less obvious locations. The narrative, previously reported by FYN, read that two, escaped inmates – members of the brutal “Ghostface Gang” – shot innocent bystanders outside of the medical provider’s office.
At 9:11 am, Towns County 911 dispatched emergency responders to the scene of the simulated crisis. Within one minute, law enforcement officers from Hiawassee Police Department and Towns County Sheriff’s Office arrived at the masacre, blocking the roadway with patrol vehicles before “fatally” subduing two shooters in skilled succession. One the threat had been neutralized, four Towns County Sheriff’s deputies secured a perimeter around the scene, and Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith could be seen directing a hysterical actor to a suitable location. Along with civilians, a law enforcement officer was said to have been “fatally shot” during the mock attack.
Towns County Fire and Rescue responders soon arrived at the location, lights flashing and sirens screaming, rendering aid while triaging “victims” according to the severity of their injuries. “Victims” who were fatally wounded were quickly tagged to alert incoming responders of their expired conditions.
Towns County Emergency Medical Service (EMS) paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) raced to the crisis, providing urgent treatment on multiple casualties. Three ambulances transported the “victims” to Chatuge Regional Hospital in Hiawassee, and three of the “patients” warranted an air-flight to trauma centers. FYN spoke with EMS Director Ken Nicholson during the drill as he assisted a role-player who suffered a gunshot wound to the abdominal area. “The training was laid out good,” the lead paramedic said. “The victims were scattered in different places, and it went well, working with available resources.”
“I think it went well,” agreed Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith, once the exercise had concluded. “It was about as realistic as we could have hoped. While the drill was designed mainly to test medical response, the addition of law enforcement created an authentic scenario. The drill was realistic, and the stress involved helped induce the right mindset.” Chief Smith was the commanding officer of the drill, as it occurred within the city’s jurisdiction. Smith explained that in a real-life situation at that particular location, Main Street would have been partitioned to eliminate traffic, and the media would have likely been staged at a nearby plaza. Georgia Bureau of Investigation would have been tasked with investigating the tragic scene. Towns County Sheriff’s Captain Jim Couch explained that the Towns County Courthouse and Towns County Schools simulated a lock-down for the sake of security during the drill.
Towns County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Brandon Walls observed the agencies’ response techniques, noting areas that could benefit from additional training. Walls described the drill as “quality,” adding that EMA plans to “hotwash” items with the fire department. Clearview at Chatuge Clinic Director Wendell Farmer was present throughout the exercise, along with registered nurse and paramedic, Sherry Minchew, an artistic participant who created the detailed, physical effects on the “injured” role-players.
An active shooter drill was simultaneously held in Blairsville at the farmers market venue, with “patient” transports arriving at Union General Hospital.
Feature Photo: Towns County EMS transports a “gunshot victim” to an awaiting ambulance for treatment
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw formally announced the appointment of Towns County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Brandon Walls at the courthouse, Tuesday, June 18, describing Walls as a ‘great fit” and a “great asset to Towns County.” Commissioner Bradshaw cited a lengthy list of credentials that Walls has achieved to a host of citizens in attendance. Walls, who served as a deputy director within the emergency division, fills the vacated position of recently retired Rickey Mathis.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), emergency management seeks to promote safer, less vulnerable communities with the capacity to cope with numerous hazards and disasters.
“My public safety career has provided me with a great deal of training and hands on experience in multiple environments,” Walls previously stated. “I traveled around the state, responding to and operating in many different incidents of widely varying types and scales. These assignments allowed me to gain experience at the field operations level and in management positions. I also developed working relationships with local, state, and federal agencies and gained an understanding of incident response and management protocols, procedures, and administration. Thoughout my career, I have studied and operated in multiple public safety disciplines.”
Walls served with the Georgia State Guard, begining his career with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources game management division as a law enforcement officer, while pursuing an education in emergency medicine. Walls serves as a paramedic and firefighter in Towns County, and as a paramedic in Cherokee County, NC. Walls holds a range of certifications in search and rescue, advanced cardiac, trauma, and pediatric life support, in addition to tactical emergency casualty care qualifications.
“I wish to continue serving our hometown by building upon the great work already in place, expanding current programs, and leading the agency into the future as Towns County’s next EMA director,” Walls said.
Feature Image: EMA Director Brandon Walls (left) with Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Emotion ran high at the courthouse Tuesday, May 21, as Towns County bid farewell to Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Rickey Mathis after 42 years of dedicated service. Towns County Sole Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw was noticeably saddened as he presented a commemorative plaque to the county’s first paramedic. Mathis also served as a coroner for Towns County.
Mathis was joined by Towns County EMA Deputy Director Brandon Walls, Towns County 911 Director Marty Roberts, and Towns County Fire Chief Harold Copeland as he humbly accepted the retirement honor, looked upon with pride by family and friends.
“Towns County owes him,” Commissioner Bradshaw said, describing Mathis as faithful and filled with integrity. “We’re very thankful for Rickey.”
Mathis said that he couldn’t have done the job he did without the men standing behind him as he accepted the distinguished plaque, referring to Walls, Roberts, and Copeland.