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COVID-19 surge hits Hall County courts
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Hall County Sheriff's Office deputies work the Hall County Courthouse security checkpoint Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, at the entrance to the courthouse. The courthouse is getting new security cameras, worth nearly $1 million, to replace a 20-year-old system. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Hall County court system saw more positive COVID-19 cases among employees in December than any other month during the pandemic, Hall Court Administrator Jason Stephenson said.

Stephenson said there was a “widespread impact” on employees and court personnel, though there have been no shutdowns of operations or canceled court calendars.

There was, however, one mistrial declared last week in State Court after a defense attorney reported feeling COVID symptoms.

“It’s slowed down in the last week, and honestly since Christmas, the holidays probably helped in that those four days of vacation helped weather the isolation period for a lot of employees that tested positive,” Stephenson said.

The courthouse closed its law library for a day on Dec. 31 because of staffing absences related to COVID-19.

The high number of cases in the courthouse comes as Northeast Georgia Health System reported 341 COVID-positive patients across its hospitals Monday, Jan. 17, with 203 of those patients at the Gainesville hospital.

Monday’s count of COVID-positive patients surpassed the last peak in September of 333 COVID-positive patients and is close to NGHS’ highest count of 355 COVID-positive patients in January 2021.

The number dipped slightly to 330 COVID-positive patients Tuesday, Jan. 18.

The Times left messages with Juvenile Court and the different prosecutors in the courtroom seeking comment.

Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris said his office has also endured employees getting sick, though it was unclear if it was related to COVID or other illness.

The combination of COVID, a shortage of personnel and other training requirements is “making it more challenging,” Morris said.

“Luckily, our office has a fair amount of space,” Morris said “… It’s not like the clerk’s office where there’s lots of people near each other.”

The lawyers have offices so they may speak to clients in private, and there is also considerably less foot traffic compared to the courthouse.

In 2020, the Georgia Supreme Court issued an order that prohibited jury trials and grand juries.

Since then, Stephenson said the high court’s guidance has led to a more “targeted and moderated” response.

The Georgia Supreme Court’s order still encourages virtual proceedings but gives local courts the discretion to proceed with in-person proceedings.

There are no plans to shutdown any of the Hall courtrooms for virtual proceedings. 

Among the judges, Stephenson said there is a preference to do in-person because of the “solemnity” of the proceedings, particularly in criminal cases.

In civil and domestic cases — particularly for motions hearings — it has been easier to convert to Zoom hearngs, Stephenson said.

Chief Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin extended an order until the end of February, which maintains the rules for social distancing and mask wearing.

“The judges don’t want to bring the public into a dangerous situation,” Morris said.

An employee policy of the judicial circuit that Stephenson felt “has been as helpful as anything” is a mandatory quarantine based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

“Our quarantine period for exposure (to COVID) went from 10 days to 5 days with masks mandated for an additional five days,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson said “every office has had to address the challenges” of the quarantine order, which has led to some short-term disruptions.