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Mobile coronavirus tests will be available in Albany, southwest Georgia through Memorial Day weekend

ALBANY — Albany residents in the Jackson Heights area of East Albany can get no-cost coronavirus tests on Saturday administered by the Georgia Department of Public Health.

As the presence of COVID-19 diminishes and people return to work and normal activities, health and elected officials are urging residents to get tested and continue to maintain practices that have slowed the spread of the virus.

Through Wednesday, there have been 137 deaths of Dougherty County residents who tested positive for the coronavirus, Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said.

There have been 1,719 confirmed cases in the county and 40,405 statewide.

The testing site at Robert Harvey Elementary School, 1305 E. Second Ave., will be open from 9 a.m.-noon on Saturday. A similar pop-up sample collection site was held for residents in south Albany the previous Saturday.

“Apparently, there are some people, older people, who don’t have transportation or who don’t feel safe driving who have not had the opportunity to go to one of the other sites,” Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said during a Wednesday telephone interview.

Testing is open to anyone, not just east Albany residents, and are administered to either walk-in or drive-through visitors, Dorough said. The wait time can be reduced by calling ahead to the Southwest Public Health District at (229) 352-6567.

“I want to encourage all residents, particularly those who live in the Jackson Heights area or who have not had the opportunity to go to one of the other sites, to take advantage of this opportunity,” the mayor said.

The health district will open testing sites on Memorial Day Monday: one in Leesburg from 9 a.m.-noon at the Lee County Health Department, 112 Park St. In Thomas County, the agency will collect specimens for testing from 9 a.m.-noon at Mt. Sinai Apostolic Church and from 2-4 p.m. at Cross Creek School.

During a Thursday new conference, Dorough expressed annoyance with some who have criticized recommended safety measures.

“I read with frustration the rants of those who say social distancing and even wearing a mask are comparable to living in a totalitarian state,” he said. “I would suggest that we no longer (engage) with them. They have their minds made up.”

The Dougherty County Commission this week approved a resolution urging people to wear masks while in public, and the Albany City Commission could vote on the joint resolution on Tuesday.

“All the medical research tells us it benefits and protects others when we wear a mask in public,” Dorough said. “In my mind we should not worry about how we are perceived by others, but how we can protect others.

“To me a mask says, ‘I am concerned about you. I am making a choice to be concerned about you.’”

Dr. Steven Kitchen, chief medical officer at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, agreed that wearing masks and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from others make a huge difference in reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Frequent hand-washing is the easiest and most effective protective measure, he said.

The wave of COVID-19 cases hit suddenly, making Dougherty County one of the biggest hot spots in the country if not the world in terms of cases and deaths, and officials say that the shelter-in-place orders and social distancing played a large role in flattening the curve of the spread of the disease.

“We have seen if there is not the appropriate response what the impact will be,” Kitchen said. “There is a way to get through the storm and see our way to the other side of the storm. I think there is a way to drastically reduce the risk of infection and the risk of transmission and also return to a more normal life.

“I think if we continue to act responsibly, we can continue to reduce the (damage) of this very dangerous virus.”

The county, having sharply reduced the number of new cases and hospitalizations, has successfully emerged from Phase 1, Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said, and is moving into the next phase of re-opening more businesses.

That first stage was chaotic and frightening, he said. Now, with protective measures, the community can start to resume a more normal routine without the fear and uncertainty that marked the initial phase.

Health officials recommend that people who are vulnerable to the disease should continue to shelter in place.

“It is time for those that are comfortable, those who are capable, to start living more normal lives,” Cohilas said. “We want to continue to move forward in a tailored fashion.”

Lee Fire Department takes amazing journey to '2' ISO rating

LEESBURG – COVID-19 safety restrictions put a damper on what would have otherwise been a celebration of excellence during the May 12 Lee County Commission meeting. Under other circumstances, the announcement of the Lee County Insurance Services Offices (ISO) insurance rating dropping from a 5 to 2 would have been celebrated with fanfare instead of being a side note.

An ISO fire rating is the measure of how well a community’s fire department can provide service and is used as the basis for commercial and homeowner insurance rates.

“They measure it every five years; our last rating was in 2014,” Lee County Fire Chief David Forrester said. “My goal since Day 1 since I became chief in 2017 was to work on the ISO ratings. I felt we could do much better.”

The ISO agency accumulates the ratings for fire departments in communities throughout the country. Their scores range from 1 to 10, with the lower score being the best service rating. A score of 1 is excellent; a score of 10 indicates a fire department did not meet minimum requirements.

Four main criteria are used to determine the ISO fire rating score:

♦ 50% is based on the quality of the fire departments training, staffing levels and distances to a fire station;

♦ 40% comes from the availability of a water supply, including the prevalence of fire hydrants and the amount of water available;

♦ 10% is based on the quality of the area’s emergency communications systems (911);

♦ An extra 5.5% comes from community outreach, including fire prevention and safety courses.

Any area that is more than 5 driving miles from the nearest hydrant is automatically rated 10.

“There are over 40,000 fire departments that are rated. Of those departments only 1,729 (4%) achieve a rating of 2 and only 388 (.09 %) achieve a rating of 1,” according to Forrester.

The Lee fire chief credits his personnel, their training and the support of the Lee County Commission with the rapid success of his department.

“The Board of Commissioner’s set the goal of having all of our personnel cross-trained,” he said. “We thought that training would take five to seven years to complete, and we were able to achieve it in two years and everything is flowing smoothly.”

Forrester also credits the training facility the department now has for preparing department personnel to face any challenge.

“The commissioners provided us with the SPLOST funds to make that possible,” he said.

During a discussion of the recent achievements, Allen Kidd, who currently serves as the department’s billing and compliance supervisor, responded to the mention that until recently the county had only a volunteer department.

Kidd has served as a chief in the department, and his service goes all the way back to the days of the all-volunteer force.

“Prior to 1986, we had volunteer departments in Lee County, Leesburg and Smithville,” he said. “In 1986, we restructured and started to pursue a professional department. What we have today was built on the foundation of that volunteer department.”

Kidd recalls the days when the Georgia Forestry Commission provided volunteer departments with tanks and pumps if the departments could provide a rolling chassis. For decades, these converted rigs were the only fire protection available in much of rural Georgia.

The Lee County Fire Department’s rise from an all-volunteer department to one that is ranked in the top 4% of all fire departments in the country in just two decades is indeed a miraculous story.

Lawsuit pits Albany mayor against local hospital amid COVID-19

ALBANY — The Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday in a case that pits Albany’s mayor against the city’s hospital, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, which since March has seen a swell of patients infected with coronavirus.

Albany Mayor Kermit “Bo” Dorough, an attorney, is representing a Johns Creek accountant, Claude Wilson “Will” Geer, in an open records lawsuit filed in 2018 seeking details of certain board meetings Geer claims may show potential conflicts of interest involving Phoebe and how the hospital system set salary amounts for top executives.

The hospital argued those records are exempt from disclosure since they involve a private company, Phoebe Putney Health System, which does not directly own the hospital. It then filed a claim for attorneys’ fees and court costs, which was the subject of Thursday’s Supreme Court hearing.

Dorough called the hospital’s move to file a claim for attorneys’ fees before the open records issues were resolved “heavy-handed” and said it could deter future transparency-focused lawsuits in Georgia.

“This case is about the operation of a community hospital,” Dorough said during Thursday’s hearing. “This is clearly an issue of public concern.”

Frank Middleton, an attorney representing the hospital, said the intent was to protect the hospital from bad-faith lawsuits and was permitted under state law.

“It doesn’t have a chilling effect as Justice [Charles] Bethel raised earlier,” Middleton said, noting language used in a question one of the court’s justices asked during the hearing.

Hearings in the Supreme Court case come as Phoebe continues treating patients for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. Dorough, who was elected mayor in December of last year, rallied behind the hospital as cases spiked in April.

Dougherty County, where Albany is located, figured as the state’s worst COVID-19 hot spot outside Atlanta as the highly contagious respiratory virus swept across the state starting in March.

Fewer coronavirus-positive patients have been admitted to Phoebe in recent weeks, marking a hopeful trend that the virus’ spread is slowing. But as of noon Thursday, the hospital was still treating 75 patients for COVID-19 and was gearing up for a possible spike from upcoming Memorial Day activities.

Geer, who was born in Albany and runs a Facebook page criticizing Phoebe, has alleged the hospital system overcharges for services, has purchased property by improper means and gives top executives “excessive and unwarranted” salaries, according to a 2018 affidavit.

Attorneys for Phoebe have denied hospital administrators engaged in anything improper and have labeled the records requests as “bad faith” on the part of Geer, according to court filings.

A spokesman for Phoebe dismissed Geer’s claims Thursday, noting the hospital compares data with other regional peer hospitals to ensure services are fairly priced.

The spokesman, Ben Roberts, also said board members provide conflict-of-interest disclosures and worked with an outside health care advisory group, SullivanCotters, in setting executive compensation rates.

“It is important to note, the Georgia Supreme Court is taking up a legal technicality in the case you mentioned and is not hearing arguments on the merits of the suit,” Roberts said.

Squirrels provide entertainment in COVID-crazy world

ALBANY — I have not found much good to say about being in social isolation except, perhaps, for the weather. Most of my time these last few months has been spent in near perfect south Georgia weather — cool nights and sunny days with low humidity. When I am not sequestered in my den working on my books, posting blogs and writing these articles, I have been working in the yard or sitting on my back porch. I have enjoyed the beautiful flowers in my wife’s garden, watched hummingbirds battle over the feeder that hangs outside my kitchen window, and listened to the squirrels fussing at some unknown danger.

I may be the only person I know who actually likes squirrels. Everybody else either hates them as pests or is indifferent toward them. Squirrels have even entered our American vernacular as a somewhat derogatory adjective. Squirrelly, according to Merriam-Webster, describes a person who is unusually active, restless, or lacking stability and control. If that is not bad enough, the dictionary goes on to suggest a squirrelly person is “morally dubious or questionable.”

The eastern gray squirrels that inhabit our neighborhoods are not morally dubious, but they are so ubiquitous we hardly notice them. They seem to be everywhere. Their original home was the oak, hickory, and walnut forests of eastern North America. That is because they eat primarily nuts, and they prefer the cover that the dense shade trees provide. In nature, their numbers are controlled by owls, foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. In our neighborhoods, the squirrel population seems to be controlled by cars — and the occasional electrical transformer.

I don’t claim to be an expert on squirrels. I have worked with other rodents (guinea pigs, prairie dogs, and capybara), but the only tree squirrel I ever worked with as a zookeeper was a beautiful squirrel from Southeast Asia, the Prevost’s squirrel. Its striking, tricolored markings — a white stripe along the side that separates a black back, and a chestnut red belly — helped me appreciate the elegance of squirrels for the first time.

There are nearly 250 species of squirrels in the world living on all continents except Australia. They are indigenous to the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa, and they come in a variety of sizes. The tiniest squirrel is the aptly named African pygmy squirrel. It is only 5 inches long from nose to tail. Others reach sizes shocking to those who are only familiar with common tree squirrels. The Indian giant squirrel, for example, is 3 feet long and could chase a small dog. Even in south Georgia, we have a variety of squirrels in sizes ranging from delicate flying squirrels to robust, colorful fox squirrels.

Some squirrels burrow underground and inhabit vast subterranean towns (prairie dogs). Some live on the ground, scurrying around forest floors (chipmunks). And some, like our gray squirrels, are terrific climbers adapted to life in the trees but who also spend time on the ground in search of food such as nuts, acorns, berries and flowers. Eastern gray squirrels are commonly seen everywhere from woodlands to city parks. They are social and vocal, using tail signals and vocalizations to communicate.

As their large eyes indicate, squirrels have excellent vision, which is especially important for these tree-dwelling species. Many also have a good sense of touch, with vibrissae on their limbs as well as their heads. The teeth of squirrels follow the typical rodent pattern, with large incisors (for gnawing) that grow throughout their life, and cheek teeth (for grinding) that are set back behind a wide gap.

Tree squirrels live in a three-dimensional world like big city apartment dwellers. They are equally adept on the ground, climbing up and down trees, and scampering about on branches high in the air. I imagine that they have preferred pathways to get from place to place just like I do. When I go from my house to the grocery store, I have a preferred route down Old Dawson Road and left on Pointe North. The squirrels seem to operate in the same manner. I see them hopping from the big oak tree in my back yard, onto the wooden privacy fence where they walk along its top to a small tree in my neighbor’s yard. I wonder where they are going. Do they know there is food ahead? Surely, they are not just wandering aimlessly — out for a walk, as it were.

We recently had to cut down a large loquat tree in our backyard. It had been damaged by Hurricane Michael, and we finally grew tired of looking at the broken branches and dead leaves. We did wait for it to finish bearing fruit for the year as a nod toward the squirrels and birds — or was it in deference to my wife who would come in from the garden with both hands full of ripe, delicious fruit? I wonder what the squirrels thought as they surveyed our cruel action from high in the oak tree. Their days of romping in its branches and gorging on loquats were over. They were forced to watch helplessly as their favorite dining spot was wiped out in a few hours.

Since our last dog died a couple of years ago, the squirrels have had free rein in our yard. We have had a few problems with them gnawing the PVC plumbing vents on our roof, but otherwise they cause no problems. That may be because the only bird feeder we have is filled with sugar-water for the hummingbirds. If we had seed feeders, we would probably be at war with the furry creatures, like most bird lovers I know.

Squirrel-proof bird feeders are their own industry. They come with names like squirrel proof, squirrel buster, and squirrel-be-gone. Bird lovers can purchase special poles and baffles to thwart the acrobatic, seed-loving rodents or they can use whatever is at hand, like grease or a toy slinky applied to the pole. Then there is something called the rule of 5–7–9. Experts suggest that feeders be placed out of reach of the squirrels which, it is said, cannot jump more than 5 feet up from the ground, won’t jump more than 7 feet across from a tree or building, and are reluctant to drop more than 9 feet onto a feeder from above. How they came up with those numbers I am not sure. I wonder if they account for the Olympic champion long-jumping squirrel, who can jump 8 feet across from a branch?

My brother Don is an avid bird enthusiast who lives in South Carolina. He once kept several bird feeders in his lovely suburban backyard, but his tree-covered property was, of course, ideal squirrel habitat. The squirrels would clean out his bird feeders in minutes. Don had tried baffles, greased poles, and expensive squirrel-proof feeders, but nothing seemed to work.

When I visited him several years ago, he seemed to have hit on a solution. He had run a wire between two trees and suspended his feeder from another wire halfway between the trees, far enough that squirrels could not leap the distance (presumably following the rule of 5–7–9). But as extra insurance against the squirrels walking the wire, he ran it through a continuous line of plastic, two-liter soft drink bottles that were fastened together with duct tape. In order to get to the feeder, a squirrel would need to walk these rolling soda bottles like a lumberjack in a log-rolling contest. I believe he was successful, but he had spent hours on the contraption and its appearance was — let’s just say rustic.

I like having the squirrels in my yard. We also have rabbits, box turtles, several species of lizards, and a few garter snakes. It is my own little wildlife refuge, and, in these days of isolation, I need all the company I can get. When I stretch out on my porch in the afternoon, I doze to the sound of wind chimes, bird songs, and squirrels chattering in the trees. I wonder if they are warning me that the neighbor’s cat is on the prowl again or they are just feeling squirrelly.