City DopeNews

COVID Keeps Getting Worse in Athens

The director of the CDC predicted last week that COVID-19 will kill 3,000 people a day nationally for the next two or three months as Clarke County public schools shut down amidst a post-Thanksgiving coronavirus spike.

“We are in the timeframe now that probably for the next 60 to 90 days we’re going to have more deaths per day than we had at 9/11 or we had at Pearl Harbor,” Robert Redfield said on Dec. 10, the day after the U.S. had a record 3,054 COVID-19 deaths.

The first shipments of the recently approved Pfizer vaccine were expected to arrive at hospitals Monday, but, at first, they’ll be reserved for front-line health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, and seniors with comorbidities that make them more vulnerable to the disease.

In the meantime, cases continue to spike in Clarke County, which had 601 confirmed cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks as of Dec. 15. That’s nearly triple the rate in early October, when the Clarke County School District decided to reopen schools. The virus has killed at least seven Clarke County residents in the past month.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases in Clarke County looks like this. Remember, at the time of that big spike around Sept. 1, ACC had one of the highest infection rates in the country, so just because the current spike is lower doesn’t mean it’s not bad.

Georgia Department of Public Health

Some surrounding counties are in even worse shape. Jackson County, where schools also shifted to remote learning last week, had 985 cases per 100,000.

Earlier in the week, a shortage of teachers and bus drivers forced CCSD to go back to online lessons a month after in-person classes restarted for elementary- and middle-schoolers. Classes will stay virtual for two weeks after winter break in anticipation of another spike after holiday travel.

At an Athens-Clarke County Commission work session Dec. 8, UGA public health professor Erin Lipp laid out the trends based on her lab’s measurement of viral loads in local wastewater. Levels started to rise in early August, when UGA students came back to town for the fall semester, peaked in late August and early September, then declined through late September and early October. That’s consistent with positive tests reported by DPH. There was another increase the week of Thanksgiving, but the next week, the spike started to taper off, Lipp said. DPH data also suggests cases are plateauing locally.

Commissioner Russell Edwards asked why the data dipped up and down. “I don’t know,” Lipp said, but she speculated that students took extra precautions when they left campus for breaks, or perhaps students who engaged in high-risk behavior developed some type of herd immunity. Since in-person classes have ended, the most recent uptick is likely to be viral spread throughout the community, not students in particular, Lipp said.

COVID-19 patients now occupy about a quarter of hospital beds in the Athens region, according to state data. As of Dec. 11, 68 of 70 ICU beds (97%) were occupied.

“At times, patient volumes have stressed our system to the point where we have had to go on temporary diversion, but our colleagues continue to work hard, rising to the occasion and providing needed care for all patients while keeping us from being overwhelmed,” St. Mary’s President and CEO Montez Carter said in a statement to Flagpole

Carter stressed that the hospital continues to see ER patients and is awaiting vaccine distribution guidance from the Food and Drug Administration. In the meantime, he urged everyone to continue mask wearing, socially distancing, avoiding large gatherings, washing hands and staying home when sick.

“We need everyone to remain diligent and not let their guard down even as the vaccine rollout begins,” he said. “The current uptick shows that the pandemic is still with us, and it is expected to continue to be with us for months to come. Although we are managing patient volumes at present, this pandemic situation is very fluid, and the dynamics could change quickly with a continued COVID surge. It is vital that our communities keep their guard up so that our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed.”