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UGA’S COVID Numbers Double as Faculty Fight for Mask Mandate

Credit: Sarah Ann White

COVID-19 cases at the University of Georgia more than doubled last week as infections countywide continued to climb.

UGA reported 231 positive tests for the week of Aug. 16, the first full week of classes, up from 104 the previous week and just 13 a month earlier. Those numbers are likely to be low—students are expected to self-report off-campus positive tests through the DawgCheck app, the university conducted less than 1,000 surveillance tests on asymptomatic individuals, and the positivity rate at the University Health Center was 21%. Anything above 5% is a sign that not enough people are being tested, so cases are going undiagnosed.

Although marred by rain, the United Campus Workers of Georgia held a silent demonstration Aug. 27 at the Arch to “mourn the death of common-sense health and safety measures” during the pandemic. The union is calling on the University System of Georgia to implement an indoor mask mandate and a vaccine mandate, with regular testing for those who cannot be vaccinated for religious or health reasons.

“USG wants students to have a normal semester. So do we all. But the only way to avoid sickness, death and a shutdown is to ensure that everyone is vaccinated and everyone stays masked,” said Cindy Hahamovitch, a UCWGA member, history professor and president of the Faculty Senate.

There are other signs that faculty members are getting fed up with USG’s response, or lack thereof, to this latest wave of the more contagious Delta variant. Last week, an 88-year-old psychology professor resigned mid-class after a student would not wear her mask properly, according to The Red & Black. Irwin Bernstein had explained to the class that he was likely to die if he caught COVID due to his age and underlying health conditions. Nevertheless, one student arrived without a mask, and after being asked to get one, refused to pull it up over her nose, angering senior classmates who needed the class to graduate.

“At that point I said that, whereas I had risked my life to defend my country while in the Air Force, I was not willing to risk my life to teach a class with an unmasked student during this pandemic,” Bernstein told The Red & Black. “I then resigned my retiree-rehire position.”

Meanwhile, tenured mathematics professor Joe Fu—who has written several columns for Flagpole criticizing UGA’s pandemic protocols—has been requiring his students to wear masks in his classrooms and sharing lectures online in defiance of USG rules. USG is forcing all professors to hold in-person classes this semester, with no virtual option, and does not allow professors to require that students wear masks. 

In Milledgeville, a Georgia College & State University rhetoric professor quit because of USG’s COVID policies. Meredith Styer asked her students to wear masks because one of her family members is at high risk, but one student refused, left the class and told the dean that Styer had kicked him out, according to the AJC.

Across the state, the Delta variant is soaring to new highs that threaten records set last winter for caseloads and hospitalizations. Clarke County as a whole recorded an average of 101 confirmed new cases a day over a seven-day period ending Aug. 31, up from 61 a week earlier, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. By another measure, the CDC reported that Clarke County had 549 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, up 43% from the previous week.

Local hospitals remained strained, with 94% of beds occupied as of Aug. 31 in Region E, which includes Clarke and 11 surrounding counties. They continued to add intensive care unit beds, and 77 of 78 were in use on Aug. 31. The CDC reported that Athens hospitals admitted 132 COVID-19 patients in the past week, an increase of 39%. In total, 291 people in the region were hospitalized with COVID, making up 42% of all hospital patients. Sixty-six patients were on ventilators.

To reduce the strain on hospitals, DPH issued a warning last week that Georgians should not go to the emergency room seeking a COVID-19 test. A list of testing sites is available at Locally, tests are available at Bulldog Urgent Care and Peachtree Immediate Care on Baxter Street; the CVS locations on North Avenue, Oglethorpe Avenue and Atlanta Highway; Walgreens on Barnett Shoals Road, Lexington Road and Hawthorne Avenue; Piedmont Urgent Care on Highway 29 near Athens Tech; the Atlanta Highway Walmart and Reddy Urgent Care off Epps Bridge Parkway. In addition, Mako Medical is partnering with DPH to operate testing sites—the Athens site is off Mitchell Bridge Road near Atlanta Highway. Testing is free for everyone but will be charged to your insurance if you have it.

With the local vaccination rate still stuck in the 40% range, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign called “Athens, We Deserve a Shot” to promote vaccination for the sake of local businesses that are struggling during the pandemic. 

“We thought the light at the end of the tunnel was in sight,” St. Mary’s CEO Montez Carter says in a video released by the chamber. “We’ve been hit with a resurgence.”

Peter Dale, co-owner of The National, Maepole and Condor Chocolate, is quoted in the video saying that the food service industry in Athens has lost hundreds of jobs over the past few months. And Katie Williams, executive director of the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city lost most of its usual $300 million in annual revenue from tourism last year. “The prospect of COVID rebounding and causing further economic turmoil makes the situation even more dire,” Dale says.

“There is one thing that all of us can do to help avoid the possible economic turmoil from the resurgence—get vaccinated,” Piedmont Athens Regional CEO Michael Burnett concludes.

UGA is prohibited by the University System of Georgia from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations, even though the Pfizer vaccine is now fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and the USG requires vaccinations for a number of other illnesses. However, the university upped its incentives last week, introducing a chance to win one of 100 $1,000 prizes for students, faculty and staff who are fully vaccinated (the program is retroactive, not just for the newly vaccinated). Previously, UGA offered a $20 gift card and a T-shirt, then added drawings for 10 $100 gift cards a week.

UGA researchers also published new findings last week that symptomatic COVID patients are more likely to spread the virus than asymptomatic ones. The study—based on 730 people diagnosed with COVID in China’s Zhejiang Province and more than 8,800 of their close contacts—found that sick people are more contagious, and that the risk of transmission was highest from two days before the onset of symptoms to three days afterward. 

The study shows that vaccination reduces the amount of virus close contacts are exposed to, and masking helps prevent the spread of aerosolized particles that could contain the virus. “This suggests interventions like vaccination and masking should continue to be encouraged,” said lead author Yang Ge, a doctoral student at the UGA College of Public Health.

At the K-12 level, the Clarke County School District launched a new dashboard, accessible through, that gives hourly updates on COVID-19 cases both districtwide and broken down by school. At the end of last week, there had been 433 confirmed COVID-19 cases in August among CCSD’s approximately 15,000 students and staff, including 282 in the past two weeks. 

DPH data shows that the Delta variant is hitting school-age children particularly hard, with more than 2,000 cases per day and rising among those under age 18 in Georgia, second only to the much larger 30–59 demographic. Some schools in nearby Madison and Jackson counties, as well as a handful of other Georgia school districts, have moved to virtual learning due to COVID outbreaks.