Chattooga County temporarily closes Public Works Department due to COVID-19

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / The Chattooga County Courthouse is seen on Monday, July 27, 2020, in Summerville, Ga.

Four out of nine public works employees in Chattooga County, Georgia, have tested positive for COVID-19 and are staying home this week, Sole Commissioner Blake Elsberry's office confirmed Thursday.

The office is closed and will remain closed until at least Monday, pending a decision from Elsberry about how best to proceed.

Elsberry was out of town Thursday, but County Clerk Martha Tucker said a deep cleaning of facilities and equipment is being done this week.

"The commissioner is in Macon right now and will assess what, if anything, needs to happen further when he returns," Tucker said. "Our hope is that everyone will be well and able to come back to work by then [Monday], but that's a decision he will make."

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The sanitation department will be open while the public works office is closed, and transit buses will operate on their usual schedule.

Because Elsberry is out of town, Tucker was hesitant to answer questions about what would happen if every person in a county department were to test positive for COVID-19 at the same time.

"I don't know what else we really could do," Tucker said. "I think we'd close the doors until everyone got better and could get back to work."

All four of the employees who tested positive for COVID-19 had been vaccinated, officials said.

Breakthrough cases - the term used to describe those who become infected by the coronavirus after being fully vaccinated - are growing in number across Georgia. But medical experts said that does not mean the vaccine isn't working.

The unvaccinated continue to make up the majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths across the state and country, which doctors say is a sign the vaccine is doing a good job protecting against most forms of serious illness. In most North Georgia hospitals, including Hamilton Medical Center, unvaccinated people make up somewhere between 80% and 95% of all hospitalized patients.

"Breakthrough doesn't mean that the vaccine failed. It means the vaccine has a rate of success, and some people may still get a symptomatic infection," said Dr. Carlos Baleeiro, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at CHI Memorial Hospital. "They may still have a more significant breakthrough infection, but they would be much more likely to have a worse outcome without the vaccine."

According to the Georgia Department of Public Health's vaccine distribution dashboard, 30% of Chattooga County residents were fully vaccinated as of Thursday. The statewide percentage of fully vaccinated residents is somewhat higher at 43%.

Vaccines are still free statewide for everyone, and identification is not required when getting vaccinated.

For more information on how to get vaccinated in North Georgia, visit nghd.org or nwgapublichealth.org. Contacts for other COVID-19 vaccine providers in the area are available at vaccines.gov.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at [email protected] or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.