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Record Number of COVID-19 Cases in Athens Strain Local Hospitals

Credit: University of Georgia

Athens continued to see a rapid increase in new COVID-19 cases last week, with the seven-day moving average of new cases increasing from 18 per day on Dec. 20 to 147 on Dec. 31 to 229 on Jan. 10, according to the Georgia Department of Health website. 

Clarke County recorded 2,248 cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, by far the highest of the pandemic, and set a single-day record with 329 cases on Jan. 6. To date, there have been 21,486 cases of COVID-19 in Clarke County.

While new cases were expected with the Omicron variant wave, hospitalizations are now increasing to levels comparable to this time last year. As of Jan. 10, 936 total Clarke County residents had been hospitalized with COVID-19, 33 of them admitted last week. Furthermore, Athens hospitals have seen a rapid rise in the number of COVID-19 patients from surrounding counties. As of Jan. 10, 258 regional patients, or 37% of all hospitalizations, were for COVID-19, approaching the levels seen last winter and during the Delta surge, when local hospitals routinely diverted patients to other facilities or forced ambulances to wait for beds to open up.

While hospitals contended with a rapid rise in cases and hospitalizations last year, this new surge of hospitalizations is further complicated by the oncoming of the flu season and other medical patients seeking care. St. Mary’s Hospital and Piedmont Athens Regional issued a joint statement urging people with mild or no symptoms to seek testing and primary care options elsewhere instead of coming to the hospital.

“Both Athens hospitals are once again experiencing a staggering surge in adults and children with COVID-19 symptoms and diagnoses,” the Jan. 5 release stated. “Collectively, the health care systems have experienced 100 to 200 percent increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past eight days, and the vast majority of inpatients are unvaccinated. This comes at a time when the health systems are preparing for an influx of patients with seasonal flu.

“Emergency room activity has also increased significantly for both emergent and non-emergent situations, including those seeking COVID-19 testing without the need for further care or treatment. To keep emergency rooms available to individuals who have the most critical health needs, individuals should obtain care at the most appropriate medical facility for their condition and seek COVID-19 testing at primary care locations, public health and mass testing sites or use at-home testing kits.”

Piedmont Athens Regional also issued a plea for volunteers on Monday. Those who are interested can fill out a web form here.

“Our community has demonstrated so much support for our staff during the pandemic. Your prayers and acts of kindness are appreciated more than you’ll ever know,” Michael Burnett, CEO of Piedmont Athens, said in a news release. “While we appreciate all the food and donations, what we need more than anything right now is volunteers to give back to the community by helping with day-to-day tasks in and out of the hospital, and to support our staff in non-clinical roles in caring for our patients.”

To accommodate higher demand for testing, the Northeast Georgia Health District moved its Athens testing site, run by Mako Medical, from the Mitchell Bridge Road fire station to Holland Park, just off Newton Bridge Road and Vincent Drive.

Clarke County has yet to see an increase in residents dying from the Omicron variant at this point, but deaths often lag behind cases. To date, 181 Clarke County residents have died from the virus. 

UGA infectious diseases professor Erin Lipp’s wastewater lab data last week showed viral “levels not observed since January 2021,” and viral levels that were higher than 93% of all samples the lab has collected to date. With such high levels of community transmission before the return of UGA students to campus for the spring semester, and no mask or vaccine mandate on campus, the community will likely see a continued increase in new cases in the coming weeks.

At least a handful of professors have said they intend to hold classes online for the first couple of weeks of the semester in violation of University System of Georgia rules. Eight also signed a letter to UGA President Jere Morehead urging him to cancel a scheduled watch party at Stegeman Coliseum for the college football national championship game Jan. 10. Among them were microbiologist Anne O. Summers and College of Public Health epidemiologist Mark Ebell. They called holding an indoor event with 5,000 attendees “startlingly irresponsible.”

The rise in cases has caused Athens-Clarke County courts to cancel jury trials through Jan. 21. Clarke County students went back to school on Jan. 6, with no immediate plans to go virtual, but the latest update from the school system urges parents to keep children with symptoms home, notify the school system if there’s a positive case and send students to school with a well-fitted mask.

Public health officials and medical experts continue to urge the public to get vaccinated and get the booster shot. Clarke County currently has 64,761 residents, or 51%, with at least one dose of the vaccine, and 59,986 residents, or 48%, who are fully vaccinated. About 42% have been fully vaccinated with a booster shot. 

The Pfizer vaccine booster shot was approved last week for children ages 12 and up, but vaccination rates for children in Athens continue to move at snail’s pace, with 1,336 Clarke County children ages 5-9, or 23% and 2,609 children ages 10-14, or 43%, who have received at least one dose.