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Three COVID-19 deaths this week bring Dougherty total to 158

ALBANY — After a two-week span when no Dougherty County residents died from complications of COVID-19, three new fatalities have been reported this week. But those deaths were not related to a recent increase in hospitalizations.

As Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital has seen a gradual increase of 40 percent in hospitalizations from the low point last month, Florida rapidly has been setting record numbers for new cases and deaths in recent days. New cases also have spiked in Alabama.

The three deaths of Dougherty County residents brought the total death toll to 158, Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said on Wednesday.

One died in Albany and the others died at hospitals in other cities.

“They had been hospitalized for a while — since March,” Fowler said of the three latest deaths. “It’s really not from the new surge, from the holidays, nothing like that.”

Dougherty County became a hot spot for the novel coronavirus early, with city and county officials declaring a state of emergency in mid-March and subsequently issuing a shelter-in-place order that was lifted last month. In ensuing weeks of the outbreak, other southwest Georgia counties recorded some of the highest per-capita rates for the disease, including Early, Randolph and Terrell counties.

Now, other counties in the region and across Georgia are dealing with a surge, said Dr. Steven Kitchen, Phoebe’s chief medical officer.

“What we are seeing right now is the (number) is starting to go up in Tift County,” he said. “Tift Regional Medical Center this week had a huge influx. The number has soared. Valdosta has more than doubled in the last week or so.

“I know Columbus, their numbers are way up; Macon is as well. I have a call with chief medical officers across the state once a week. We are seeing there is a much greater need for hospital beds and ICU beds across the state.”

Tift County had a total of 999 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Tuesday, a rate of 2,447 per 100,000 residents, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The agency reported a total of 1,955 confirmed cases in Lowndes County.

In Dougherty County the number of hospitalizations dropped to the low-30s a few weeks ago, but in recent days has been hovering at about 50 in the hospital for treatment on a daily basis.

“It’s just kind of gradually gone up,” said Kitchen, who added he doesn’t think the rise reflects a second wave hitting the region. “We’ve definitely seen an increase, but nothing like we saw in March and April.

“I think it’s still a manifestation of that first wave. I think we are certainly seeing a notable increase after that first surge in March and April.”

With cases surging in Arizona, Florida, South Carolina and Texas, it has become obvious COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. Florida’s role as a summer destination, with beaches and bars doing a brisk business, are factors in that state’s increase, Kitchen said.

Florida’s record of 15,299 new confirmed cases on Sunday also shattered New York’s largest single-day total of 11,571 at that state’s peak in April. The Sunshine State also reported the highest number of deaths on a single day this week with 123 on Tuesday.

Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center and Hollywood Studios re-opened on Wednesday, after the re-opening on Saturday of the Magic Kingdom park.

Scientists regularly are making new discoveries about the coronavirus that emerged late last year in China.

For Kitchen, one of the biggest eye-openers is the ease with which the virus can be spread, with droplets being spread by coughing and sneezing but also by droplets released from the upper respiratory tract when people project their voices by speaking or singing.

“There is no question our knowledge and understanding of the virus — how it behaves, how it is transmitted, effective treatment — is rapidly expanding,” Kitchen said. “I think probably the biggest revelation to me has been that the virus is perfectly designed to cause a global pandemic. People begin spreading it before they show any symptoms. It’s easily spread from person to person by respiratory droplets.”

The rapid pace of developing a potential vaccine also has impressed the physician. There are three vaccines in serious contention to be the first that will be available.

Manufacturers will conduct clinical trials to prove the safety and effectiveness prior to approval, Kitchen said.

“We’re hopeful there will be a potential vaccine,” Kitchen said. “The question then is can we produce them on a scale that will be sufficient.”

In the meantime, the recommended way to combat the spread of the disease and deaths are those identified as effective in prior pandemics, which includes face masks and practicing good hygiene.

“The real basics, in terms of curbing the transmission, are the things we’ve been talking about before,” he said. “Masking is particularly effective. Masks are 90 percent (effective) in reducing the odds of spreading by respiratory droplets.

“The second thing is distance, at least 6 feet. The chances of catching the virus from respiratory droplets is going to decrease.”

With numbers climbing in much of the country, the best advice is for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions to stay at home as much as possible, Kitchen added.

“You should just try to practice sheltering in place and minimize the time you’re out,” he said.

Bridges begins record-setting 15th year as Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College president

TIFTON — When he walked up the steps of historic Tift Hall on the campus of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College on July 1 to begin his 15th year as president of the college, David Bridges became the longest-serving president in the college’s history. As a member of the Class of 1978, Bridges is also the only ABAC president to have been a student at the school.

“My goal for ABAC hasn’t really changed,” Bridges said. “I want us to teach students and give them a life experience they will never forget while they are on our campus.”

The 62-year-old native of Parrott, who also happens to be the longest-tenured president in the 26-member University System of Georgia, says he does not spend a single moment thinking about his ABAC tenure.

“I didn’t really think about how long I was going to stay at ABAC when I became president in 2006, and I don’t think about it now,” Bridges said. “When I was a student at ABAC, I never dreamed of being president. And when I became president, I never looked at this job as a stepping-stone to something else.

“It has been fun most of the time. As you can imagine, it has not been all that much fun lately, mainly because of the virus impacting our budget situation.”

ABAC and the other USG colleges and universities finished the final weeks of the spring semester with online classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the virus persisted, online classes continued during the summer term.

ABAC plans to return to in-person instruction when the fall semester begins on Aug. 12. That is a day Bridges says he is looking forward to.

“We want to have students in class, and living safely on our campus,” he said. “That is the highest priority right now.

“To accomplish that, we have to make a lot of changes. I will be stunned if we get to the end of the semester with the plan currently in place, but you have to start somewhere and then be prepared to go to Plan B or Plan C, and then to the next plan that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Bridges has faced plenty of challenges during his presidency, but the battle against the relentless pandemic tops them all.

“This is about survival,” he said. “Most of the things we’re asking people to do deal with the unknown. That is hard for everybody. Everything is short-term because plans have to be altered daily.”

Soon after taking office, Bridges was the architect of ABAC’s monumental change from a two-year school to a four-year institution. ABAC began offering junior- and senior-level classes for the first time in 75 years in 2008. When he considers the accomplishments during his tenure, he said, bachelor’s degrees at ABAC top the list.

“Getting bachelor’s degrees changed everything,” Bridges said. “Everything else falls a distant second to that. We would really be in a lurch if we were not a four-year school.”

ABAC in 2020 looks much different than it did when Bridges participated in the first presidential inauguration ceremony in the history of the college on Aug. 25, 2006.

“I believe we’re in a better place,” he said. “Our mission is more focused. We are better off financially and with our facilities. Our ABAC Foundation is much better off, and I think we have a very strong faculty and staff.”

There have been milestones aplenty during Bridges’ tenure as president.

In 2008, ABAC celebrated its 100th birthday with a yearlong extravaganza. In 2010, ABAC took over the operation of the Georgia Museum of Agriculture and made it a part of the ABAC campus. In 2013, the Historic Front of Campus renovation gave new life to the three original buildings on campus: Tift Hall, Lewis Hall and Herring Hall.

ABAC recorded its highest enrollment ever during the 2018 fall semester with 4,291 students from 30 countries, 18 states, and 155 of Georgia’s 159 counties. The enrollment jump was due in part to a merger with Bainbridge State College, which added ABAC instructional sites in Bainbridge, Blakely and Donalsonville.

During Bridges’ presidency, almost 8,000 graduates have received their ABAC diplomas. For the second consecutive year, ABAC led all colleges and universities east of the Mississippi River in the number of students receiving their bachelor’s degrees in Agricultural Education.

Eleven other bachelor’s degrees at ABAC include business, agribusiness, biology, agriculture, history and government, agricultural communication, nursing, environmental horticulture, rural community development, writing and communication, and natural resource management. When Bridges became president, there was not a single bachelor’s degree offered at ABAC.

More than $84 million in capital projects have been completed or are nearing completion during Bridges’ tenure. Those projects include the college’s Health Sciences building at $7.2 million, ABAC Lakeside at $17 million, Historic Front of Campus at $15.5 million, King Hall at $2.7 million, Donaldson Dining Hall at $4 million, Thrash Wellness Center at $4.5 million, the Laboratory Sciences building at $7.2 million, and the Carlton Center/Fine Arts Building project at $24 million. Road improvements add another $2 million.

“Each of these projects has made this campus better,” Bridges said. “That plays a part in the recruitment of students as well. When students visit ABAC, they like what they see here.”

Students on campus during the 2020 fall term will enjoy the new Fine Arts Building on the front of campus and the revitalized Carlton Center, which will be home to the Baldwin Library as well as The Stallion Shop bookstore. Both projects are just days away from their completion.

Bridges said he is excited about his record-setting 15th fall semester at ABAC.

“We haven’t had the students on campus since March 13,” he said. “I am ready for them to be back. There’s nothing like the atmosphere on the first day of class for the fall semester.”

Albany Tech nursing program grads have 100% pass rate

ALBANY – The graduating spring Associate of Science in Nursing Program at Albany Technical College has reported a 100% pass rate on its standardized testing. The NCLEX exam, also known as the National Council Licensure Examination, is a standardized test that every state regulatory board uses to determine if a candidate is ready to become licensed as an entry-level nurse.

Six Albany Technical College students who recently graduated in the spring passed, including Kenya Floyd, Devon Herndon, Tanique Howard, Asia Jordan, Cori Miller, and Toshirio Rivers.

“We are so proud of these students,” Albany Technical College President Anthony Parker said. “They completed the necessary clinical hours and graduated with an associate’s degree, and then all passed the NCLEX exam. Our community’s need for qualified nurses has never been emphasized more than now.”

According to the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics, employment in nursing is projected to grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. As the baby-boom population ages, the overall need for health care services is expected to increase. More nurses will be needed in residential care facilities and in-home health environments to care for older patients.

Lee County to start revaluation process

LEESBURG – A variety of items were a part of the Lee County Commission meeting agenda Tuesday evening. The one with the greatest potential impact on the citizens of the county, though, will be the property revaluation process starting later this month.

Dennis Lee, the chief appraiser for the county, told commissioners that the revaluation process was necessary because it had been more than 20 years since the last one and property values are not reflective of current values nor are they always equal to comparable properties.

The commission stressed that the revaluation process should not be considered a tax increase and should be seen as a benefit in increasing the equity of their property. Once the property values have been set, the county’s millage rate will be adjusted so that no tax increase occurs.

A public hearing regarding a request by Race Trac Petroleum LLC for a variance to the Lee County sign ordinance was also part or Tuesday’s meeting. Sameer Ali, representing Race Trac, said, “We are asking to consolidate our signage allotment for the two sites into one 200-square-foot sign.”

Instead of four to five smaller signs, the company wants to have one large sign that is more visible at a greater distance.

However, County Attorney Jimmy Skipper pointed out to commissioners that for a variance to be issued, multiple criteria regarding potential hardship, public interest and lot configuration must be met. And in this case, Skipper said, staff did not recognize any of the criteria for a variance being met. The recommendation by staff for denial was approved.

Consideration for approval of an alcohol license for William Chan, manager of the King Claw restaurant, was approved. The commission also approved leases to the State Properties Commission and the Department of Family and Children Services.

The commission also approved the purchase of two new technology models of the jaws of life, which have a number of benefits over the older models.

“The new models will cut and spread the material of newer cars; they only require one person to operate them where the older ones require three people to operate them,” Fire Chief David Forrester said. He also said that the newer models could preform an operation three times faster with double the force of the older models. The consideration to purchase two pairs carried.

The commission discussed amending its bid procedure to allow for more flexibility in putting smaller projects up for bid. The new procedure would allow bids to be accepted for projects costing up to $50,000 to be accepted without requiring payment and performance bonds. The contractor would be required to be licensed, have liability insurance, and workman’s compensation insurance. The new policy will be presented at the commission’s next meeting.

Consideration to award a bid for a drainage project at Grand Island was tabled, as were a number of other items on the agenda.