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Another COVID Surge Is Hitting Athens

Our Hot Townie Summer is over. One month ago, COVID-19 had been virtually wiped out in Clarke County, with fewer than two cases reported per day. Thanks to vaccines, life had started to return to normal.

Then the Delta variant hit. Now cases have increased fifteenfold, and they’re still rising, with K-12 classes starting up this week, tens of thousands of unvaccinated University of Georgia students poised to move back to town and football season looming.

“Unfortunately, we can expect COVID numbers to keep growing. People who are unvaccinated or skip their second dose of vaccine are targets for infection,” Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said last week as cases spiked statewide and across the nation.

As of Aug. 3, the seven-day rolling average for Clarke County stood at 32 new cases per day. Under another widely used metric to measure spread, Clarke County had seen 257 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks. That figure had been well below 100 for most of the summer, leading Athens-Clarke County officials to allow the city’s mask mandate to lapse back in May. The actual figures are probably much higher—the positive test rate is 10.4%, and anything higher than 5% indicates that not enough testing is being done, so cases are going uncounted.

“Our mask mandate was tied to having more than 100 new cases per 100,000 in population in a two-week window,” Mayor Kelly Girtz said on July 26, in response to Savannah reinstating its mask order. Fortunately, we have been under that threshold for more than two months, though our numbers have tripled in the last month from the low point late this spring.

“I will be making a continued push for residents, including new-to-campus students, to get vaccinated,” he said. “It’s quick, easy and can save your life or that of those around you.”

At that time, cases per 100,000 over the past 14 days stood at 108, so they’ve actually risen eightfold by now. But Girtz said the mask mandate did not automatically go back into effect when the metric blew past 100 again. By the end of the week, commissioners were discussing restoring it, and they planned to put it on the agenda for their Aug. 3 voting meeting, according to Commissioner Russell Edwards. The commission also plans to vote on a resolution instructing Manager Blaine Williams to come up with a plan to require all ACC employees to get vaccinated.

However, don’t expect any action from the state government, in spite of public health experts like Toomey’s expectation that the current surge will get worse. “Georgia will not lock down or impose statewide mask mandates,” Gov. Brian Kemp announced on social media last week.

That led Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who’s tracking the pandemic in Georgia, to say Kemp “has no other strategy than to let Georgia burn.” In her weekly newsletter, Schmidtke described how unvaccinated people with the Delta variant are filling up hospitals across the South, and how children are more susceptible to the Delta variant than previous strains:

“So when this starts to happen in a bigger way in Georgia, and kids who were previously healthy are on ventilators, I don’t want school superintendents to claim that there was no way this could have been predicted. We have plenty of warning that the situation in 2021 is more dangerous than a year ago for children. Willingly choosing to endanger children by not doing the bare minimum of disease control and prevention should be treated the same way as knowingly allowing someone drunk to drive a school bus, and organizations that do so should be held to account. They don’t get to push the blame to someone else after they dismiss CDC guidance. Georgia children are going to end up in the hospital or worse. In addition, they will go home to families where they spread the disease to others, some of whom may be immunocompromised [think pregnant moms—it’s more common than you think], older grandparents and others with underlying medical conditions. The liability alone would scare me enough as a superintendent to enact a mask mandate at the elementary level at the very minimum where none of the kids are eligible for a vaccine.”

The Clarke County School District has shifted course on masks several times, and last week announced that everyone—all students, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status—is required to wear a mask while inside schools (see p.6 for more). But other area school districts are not requiring masks.

The hospital situation is once again growing dire in Athens, as 96% of intensive care beds were in use as of Aug. 3. The number of COVID patients is rising, from 10 three weeks ago to 35 two weeks ago to 64 last Friday to 90 this Monday. And the city is adding tens of thousands of people to its population, not to mention the 100,000 or so who will be visiting for the weekend this fall.

In fact, the situation looks very much like it did this time last year. On Aug. 3, 2020, Clarke County had an average of 41 new cases per day, not much higher than now. At the time, UGA had the third-most COVID cases of any university in the country—before classes had even started. What followed, once UGA resumed in-person classes, was a month-long surge of historic proportions. By Sept. 6, Clarke County was averaging 156 new cases per day.

Meanwhile, the University of Georgia is doing little to ensure that incoming students are vaccinated. President Jere Morehead and other top administrators sent a mass email to students, staff and faculty urging them to “contemplate this matter very carefully.” The university is also giving away a free T-shirt and $20 gift card to students who are vaccinated at the University Health Center.

Other public universities are doing far more—even others in Republican-run states, not just blue states like California, Maryland and New Jersey. Indiana University is requiring students to be vaccinated, although the state legislature has prohibited requiring proof. Auburn University is entering vaccinated students into a lottery for prizes like $1,000 off tuition, unlimited meal plans and premium parking passes.

People in their 20s often feel invincible, and they’re among the least likely to get vaccinated. Evidence is emerging, however, that the Delta variant is more serious for younger people, with emergency room physicians all over the country reporting that they’re seeing younger, healthier patients than in previous waves, when the seriously ill were primarily the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions. Most people over 65 are fully vaccinated, and people aged 18-49 now make up the largest demographic hospitalized for COVID-19.

Almost all of those patients are unvaccinated. In Georgia, just 0.3% of the 9,000 residents who’ve died of COVID in the past seven months were vaccinated, Georgia Public Broadcasting reported.

“Most people will either get vaccinated, or have been previously infected, or they will get this Delta variant,” Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, told CBS. “And for most people who get this Delta variant, it’s going to be the most serious virus that they get in their lifetime in terms of the risk of putting them in the hospital.”

Contrary to previous evidence, though, new research is emerging that breakthrough cases are more common than previously thought, and that vaccinated people can spread the virus. That’s because the Delta variant is over 1,000 times more contagious than previous strains. It’s been compared to chickenpox (and readers who grew up before the chickenpox vaccine surely remember how quickly it could rip through a classroom). 

On the July 27 edition of the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” during a discussion about breakthrough cases, hosts briefly mentioned a fully vaccinated family that traveled to Athens for a family reunion, and all five became infected. Two days later, the Washington Post published CDC documents revealing alarming new data that led the agency to once again advise wearing a mask indoors—even the vaccinated. One study found that three-quarters of people who became infected during an outbreak at a Massachusetts beach town were vaccinated. They gathered in “densely packed indoor and outdoor events that included bars, restaurants, guest houses and rental homes.” Sound familiar?

The good news is that very few of those people were hospitalized. It remains true that, even against Delta, vaccines are highly effective at preventing serious illness and death. Almost all breakthrough cases are asymptomatic or mild. Will that still be the case for Epsilon or Zeta, though? As long as fewer than 50% of Americans (and just 40% of Athenians) are vaccinated, the pandemic is going to drag on.

On the Disney+ show “Loki,” which involves “variants” of the Marvel character from alternate universes, the villain pulling the puppet strings argues that, if he’s killed, an even more evil variant will take his place. When it comes to Delta, the challenge is going to be getting enough people vaccinated quickly enough to stop something worse from emerging.