Fulton County’s justice system, which has been limited since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, could get a boost soon.
The county is considering having limited grand jury proceedings as it continues with Phase II of its reopening plan amid the outbreak.
“The primary focus of that effort is locations to facilitate social distancing and the best practices to keep jurors safe,” Fulton Chief Operating Officer Anna Roach said.
Roach spoke at the Fulton Board of Commissioners’ Oct. 7 meeting, which was held virtually due to the pandemic.
March 14, as the outbreak started in the United States, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton issued an executive order declaring a statewide judicial emergency requiring courtrooms to mostly remain closed. Sept. 10, he extended that order a sixth time, through Oct. 10.
Under the order, while some in-person court proceedings have been allowed and others have shifted to an online format, jury trials and grand jury proceedings have been prohibited because of the amount of space required to practice social distancing.
But that has put on hold many trials and other proceedings, and some likely won’t start until next year. District 1 Commissioner Liz Hausmann said many residents have asked her when cases could go back to court.
“I am getting a lot of inquires about when court operations will resume, especially in the area of family (court),” she said.
However, Melton announced in an Oct. 7 news release he planned to sign on Oct. 10 a new order that lifts the suspension of jury trials in the state while still extending the statewide judicial emergency.
Also at the meeting, Fulton officials announced 123 of the county’s 4,600 employees, including some working in the justice system, have contracted COVID-19 and one has died. Ten tested positive in the past few weeks.
District 4 Commissioner Natalie Hall asked Roach if the county was following proper protocols on employees who test positive for the virus.
“I was told in the (court) clerk’s office and the courts, employees were being told to get tested when it was found that other employees had COVID-19,” she said. “Other employees were told to come back to work before they got their results back.
“Then you have this vicious cycle of the other employees having to get tested and awaiting their results while possibly spreading it around themselves. Are we communicating the same message out as far as how to handle testing and employees getting COVID, because there seems to be some confusion out there with the Fulton County offices?”
Roach replied, “To answer the first part of your question as the cause, it’s hard for us to make a determination of where people are getting (the virus), but I think you’re right in being suspicious that it does indeed typically include people doing work in confined spaces.”
“From an emergency services/E911 standpoint, we did take additional precautions to disperse 911 call takers. At this time we have less 911 call takers in one confined space. Hopefully that will help, and I’m glad to see we’re seeing improvement in that area.
“I do know the district attorney has some level of a work-from-home policy. So I don’t know what’s driving the numbers there.”
Kenneth Hermon, Fulton’s chief human resources officer, said his department has spoken to all other departments about making sure they know what the correct protocols are.
“We did double down to make sure communication was clear to all departments, especially those departments that have employees in county buildings,” he said. “There were some significant changes based on guidance from the CDC and the state government. … We also distributed the standards protocols for addressing any possible exposure.”
District 5 Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. asked if all employees who test positive for COVID-19 are contact traced, or asked who they have come in contact with during the time they may have contracted the virus.
Dr. Lynn Paxton, Fulton’s district health director, said every employee who tests positive is contact traced. However, she added, “The problem is we rely on the person being forthcoming on who they came in contact with. We are looking for the supervisors in the departments to also help us find out who has been in contact with that person.”
Paxton also said the county’s three main COVID-19 testing sites in north, central and south Fulton are also offering flu shots for residents who request them. It’s also already offering them at all of the county’s clinics.
“It is our goal, particularly with COVID going on and flu season coming up, (that) we want to provide for uninsured and underinsured residents free flu vaccines. We’re using state-funded vaccines,” Paxton said. “… Assuming that goes well, we’ll expand it to all of our testing sites, including our eight mobile units.”
The county will also host a flu vaccine site Oct. 27 at the Georgia State Capitol Building in downtown Atlanta.