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Athens Vaccinations Slow as COVID-19 Hospitalizations Rise

Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

After weeks of nearly record-low COVID-19 numbers since the pandemic started almost 18 months ago, the recent uptick in Clarke County’s cases held steady last week at an average of 5.9 per day as of July 16—likely a result of the Delta variant spreading through the South, alongside a lagging vaccination rate. 

Last week, there were 41 new confirmed cases in Clarke County and an additional 14 positive antigen tests, bringing the totals to date to 13,037 confirmed cases and 2,283 positive antigen tests, for a total of 15,320 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Viral shedding in wastewater collected by UGA infectious diseases professor Erin Lipp’s lab remained readily detectable in all samples on July 12 at levels comparable to a week prior, when an increase in viruses found in wastewater corresponded with an increase in cases.

While only one additional person from Clarke County was hospitalized, according to Georgia Department of Public Health data, there was a noted increase in hospitalizations for the region. According to data from the hospital census hospitalizations for COVID in Northeast Georgia’s Region E increased from 13, or 2.3% of all patients, to 25, or 4.5% of patients.

“We are all watching those numbers daily,” Clarke County School District Superintendent Xernona Thomas told the school board last week. “We all know the Delta variant is real.”

Thomas’ administration announced at the July 15 board meeting that masks would be required for students in 6th grade and below except while outdoors, such as during recess. For 7th through 12th grade, “unvaccinated individuals are expected to wear masks indoors,” said Jillian Whatley, the executive director of student support services. Masks will be required on buses. They are optional for fully vaccinated staff. 

In addition, air filtration systems are being installed and students will be expected to observe three feet of social distancing. All schools will be open five days a week with normal bell schedules. Only high-school students will have a virtual option, according to Chief Academic Officer Brannon Gaskins.

Last month, CCSD had said it was not requiring masks during summer school and would not require masks when the fall semester starts. That announcement prompted a backlash from parents who started a petition. 

Currently only those ages 12 and up are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, as trials are still underway for younger children. Given the data on vaccination rates for those 12 to 15, CCSD’s policies may not be enough to curb potential outbreaks. According to data obtained through an open records request to DPH, as of July 12, 1,253 young people in that age group were listed in the “at least one dose” category and 992 listed in the “fully vaccinated” category. Unlike most DPH figures, that data isn’t correlated with county of residence, but rather the county of vaccine administration.

Overall, the pace of vaccinations among Clarke County residents has slowed in recent weeks. As of the end of last week, Clarke County had 52,681 residents, or 42%, receive at least one dose of a vaccine, and 48,847 residents, or 39%, were fully vaccinated. In total, 846 doses were administered to Clarke County residents last week.