Whitfield County Opens Summer Youth Leagues With COVID Restrictions

Friday, May 29, 2020 - by Mitch Talley
After a spring without soccer, baseball, and softball, Whitfield County youngsters will soon be able to return to the fields.

The Whitfield County Recreation Department had 1,500 children signed up for those leagues back in March when activities suddenly came to a crashing halt during the worldwide battle against COVID-19.

“We basically lost a whole spring season – soccer, baseball, and softball,” Recreation Director Brian Chastain said Thursday afternoon during the “County Connect” livestream program that aired on the county website and was hosted by Commission Chairman Lynn Laughter.
“I’m sure that was devastating to a lot, but obviously safety comes way before we worry about sports.”

Now, however, with Gov. Brian Kemp announcing today the resumption of amateur and professional sports starting June 1, the local recreation department is anxious to see youngsters enjoying themselves again on the ball fields, with proper safety precautions, of course.

Anticipating the governor’s decision, the recreation department had already been registering for summer youth leagues, and with sign-ups scheduled to end on May 31, some 300 children ages 4 to 14 had already registered. If you’d like to take part, you can still register by visiting www.playwcrd.com, calling the recreation department at 706-226-8341, or by stopping by the office on Friday, May 29 from 8:30 to 5 p.m.

“We’re calling this a T-shirt league,” Chastain said. “We’re only charging $10 – usually we charge $25 – but all we’re doing is buying a T-shirt for the kids. Normally we outfit them with everything, but in the summer it’s going to be hot so they can wear whatever they want along with the T-shirt we are providing.”

As for travel leagues, Chastain says he understands that the county can begin hosting such tournaments on Saturday, June 6, and that’s good news for local businesses as well as athletes.

“Just to give people a little insight into these weekend tournaments - why we feel they’re important to us - is on any given weekend at a tournament that we run and put together,” he said, “the economic impact on Whitfield County is about $100,000 a weekend, not including motels.”

Chastain says the recreation department has been collaborating with other recreation departments in the state, looking for ways to make sure the players and fans can be safe and feel comfortable on the field.

Among the ways they’re planning to accomplish that is by asking fans to attend their game only, with a brief time provided between games for them to exit in one area and the upcoming fans to enter in another area.

They’ll also ask participants to practice social distancing, and Chastain suggested that grandparents might want to stay home so they won’t be exposed to potential carriers of the virus. “I hate to say that because I know how grandparents love to watch their grandkids play,” he said.

The county’s picnic shelters, playgrounds, and community center gyms remain closed because of concerns they cannot be effectively sanitized, but the recreation department encourages residents to continue visiting the parks, where they can walk for exercise or even go fishing at Westside Park.

“The walkers have actually never stopped from day one when shelter-in-place began,” Chastain said. “Now they were all maintaining their distance and doing the right thing, but people need to get their exercise.”

Westside Park’s lake has been popular during the crisis, he said, noting “you can go out there anytime during the day and find 30 people fishing – we love to see people out utilizing our facilities.”

Later in Thursday’s broadcast, Chastain said he was relieved to hear another guest on the program, Dr. Zachary Taylor, leader of the North Georgia Health District that includes Whitfield County, suggest that residents need to get outside and enjoy themselves, practicing social distancing, of course.

“People should get outside,” Taylor said, “and they should exercise outside. I think sunlight and exercise are healthy within reason. We would like them to maintain social distancing, six feet apart or so, but get outside, get some exercise (because) the healthier we are, the better able we are to fight this virus if we are infected.”

Coronaviruses in the past typically haven’t fared well in the summer, according to Taylor. “It’s typically a winter virus,” he said, “and that may have as much to do with the dry conditions inside and people being crowded inside as anything else. But we don’t typically see a lot of the circulation of coronaviruses in the summertime. We don’t know whether or not that’s going to be true for this virus.”

He pointed out that it’s harder to transmit the virus outdoors and that the UV rays and heat of the sun can kill the virus, though “I will say this, Brazil, which is a hot, humid place like Georgia in the summertime, is having a terrific problem with coronavirus, so I’m not sure if this’ll hold true for this virus during the summertime here. Regardless of what happens in the summertime, the virus is still around. We do expect to see an increase in the fall as we start spending more time indoors.”

While cases may go up again as cooler temperatures return, Taylor said he’s hopeful that “by that time, we’ll have better testing, faster testing, effective treatments, and we can be looking forward to getting a vaccine. A lot of people are predicting this particular coronavirus is going to be a fact of life in the future, that it’s not ever going to particularly go away, but we’ll be able to control it with testing, vaccinations, and effective treatment.”

Taylor said it’s usually a long and expensive process to develop a vaccine, “and I think people need to be patient as we go through this process of [finding out] A – whether it works, and B – whether it’s safe and does it cause untoward side effects in the people that take it. I think it’ll be even much longer before we have a vaccine that’ll be used in children because we are even more stringent on our criteria for giving vaccinations to children than we are perhaps in giving them to adults.”

He foresees that vaccines, once developed, will be given initially to health care workers and first responders, “that population that we really need to be protected,” then next to more vulnerable people like the elderly and medically fragile, and finally to the general adult population.

“It would be remarkably rapid for us to have a vaccine by this time next year,” Taylor said, “not impossible, but it would be very rapid. I hope people understand it’s not a problem of manufacturing, not a problem like with our PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) where it’s a manufacturing problem, [the vaccine is] a problem of making sure that what we’re developing works and is safe.”

Taylor reported that Whitfield County has seen an uptick in positive tests lately but says it could just be the result of a lot more testing. “We’re finding people who are asymptomatic, with no symptoms or mild symptoms,” he said. “Those people would not have been tested a month ago because of limitations on testing availability and lab capacity. We’re testing a lot more now so we’re finding these asymptomatic cases and mild cases.”

Nearly a third (102) of the 315  total positive tests have come in the last week, he said. “But we have not seen severe cases, and the hospital census is low. We have had seven deaths in Whitfield County, but no deaths recently. Hospitalization and deaths tend to lag behind the cases, so we’ll need to keep a close eye on that to see how that evolves in the future.”

The bottom line, he said, “is that we are still having transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 in our county and our community, so we need to continue to be aware of that and we need to make sure we continue to protect the most vulnerable people in our population  - the elderly and people who have chronic medical conditions.”

Taylor also recommends residents wear a mask when they’re in public places like grocery stores, drug stores, and other businesses.

“For some reason, mask wearing has become a political statement,” he said. “If you wear a mask, it means one thing. If you don’t wear a mask, it means another thing. I think people should recognize the reason you want to wear a mask is so that you can participate in protecting others in your community. It’s really a sign that you care about the people that are around you and you don’t want to transmit this disease to others.”

He said people who aren’t showing symptoms are still capable of transmitting the virus. “The whole purpose of wearing a mask,” he said, “is so that when you speak or you happen to cough or sneeze, you don’t spread that virus through the air so that someone else can become infected. You may say I’m only around people who are my age, we don’t really get severe illnesses, but you’ve got to remember that you could give it to someone else who possibly may go visit someone who is older or has a chronic medical condition and they could transmit it to that person.

“That’s the chain of transmissions we see, so please if you’re going into a public place, wear a mask,” Taylor said. “Now you don’t need to wear a mask if you’re outside, especially if you’re social distancing. If you’re taking a walk, you don’t need to wear a mask. But if you go to the grocery store or the drug store or some other type of store, please wear a mask. Continue to wash your hands. Continue to use hand sanitizer, and I would recommend you continue to clean surfaces that are frequently touched in your home, such as door knobs and counter surfaces.”

The Whitfield County Health Department is still offering COVID-19 drive-up testing to anyone Monday through Friday, with hours varying.. Just call 888-881-1474 to schedule an appointment for the free test, with the whole process taking just five to eight minutes.

The test used locally is a PCR test, which looks for the genetic material of the virus.  “Typically a lab can do that kind of test in half a day,” Taylor said, “but the problem is the volume of tests they’re getting is so high they’re not able to get that [kind of] turnaround. Early on, the backlog was so severe it would sometimes take seven to 10 days to get the results back. Now we generally get results back in 48 to 72 hours, which is still too long but quite an improvement, however.”

While so-called rapid testing is available, with results available in 45 minutes, Taylor said that equipment and testing materials are limited in supply.

“I think in the future we want to get to the point where we’re doing a different type of test – an antigen test – sort of like the strep test you may get in your doctor’s office,” he said. “Essentially you get the results back instantaneously. You probably would need confirmation with the other test we’re using now, but if we had the availability of doing [the rapid test], then we could rapidly determine if someone’s infected. That’s one of our benchmarks of where we’re going to be with this virus in the future. I think rapid comprehensive testing is one goal we have that’ll really help us to identify people that are infected. We can have them isolated so they don’t infect others, and that’ll be a big control.”

A second major step would be development of effective treatments to prevent severe cases, especially in vulnerable populations, and the third major goal would be development of a safe and effective vaccine “so we can truly return to normal,” Taylor said.

“But that’s probably several months into the future,” he said.

Whitfield County Emergency Management Director Claude Craig was also on the program Thursday and gave updated figures on the number of positive tests (315) and deaths (seven) in Whitfield County. He said six COVID-19 patients are in Hamilton Medical Center as of May 28, with three of them in the intensive care unit but none on ventilators. Statewide, there have been 523,359 tests, with 45,070 positive results and 1,962 deaths.

Thursday’s “County Connect” program was the last, according to Chairman Laughter, who said the programs could return if circumstances change or if local citizens request a certain topic be discussed.

You can watch all the shows online on the county’s website, www.whitfieldcountyga.com.

Questions for the county commissioners can be sent by e-mail to Laughter at llaughter@whitfieldcountyga.com, Harold Brooker at hbrooker@whitfieldcountyga.com, Roger Crossen at rcrossen@whitfieldcountyga.com, Greg Jones at gjones@whitfieldcountyga.com, or Barry Robbins at brobbins@whitfieldcountyga.com. You can also call the county offices at 706-275-7500.

 

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