As the UGA spring semester starts, Athens has significant community COVID-19 spread, and the city’s two hospitals are overwhelmed more than ever in this pandemic.
As of Jan. 12, Athens hospitals have exceeded their intensive-care bed space, with 89 ICU patients listed by the Georgia Department of Public Health, even though the Athens region, Region E, has a normal ICU capacity of 70 beds. Beyond the ICU, bed space at the hospitals was in high demand, with 584 of the 614 inpatient beds, or 95%, occupied. Additionally, 47% of all hospitalizations were COVID-19 related. To date, that was the highest percentage of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Athens hospitals.
According to DPH data from the Georgia Geospatial Information Office’s COVID-19 Data Hub, Clarke County to date has had 9,661 confirmed cases, another 1,736 antigen positive cases, 345 hospitalizations, 67 deaths, three probable deaths and a seven-day rolling average of 106 new cases per day. Outside Clarke County, the surrounding counties also continue to show community-wide spread.
Another bad sign: According to the UGA Center for Ecology of Infectious Diseases’ wastewater study data, the levels of virus found in local wastewater is higher than it’s ever been in Athens-Clarke County, just exceeding levels that occurred in September, when UGA students returned to Athens for the fall semester. Now, the Board of Regents continues to encourage more face-to-face classes and has no plans to postpone face-to-face classes in an effort to help make sure local hospitals aren’t even more overwhelmed. At other universities, like the University of North Carolina, administrators decided to postpone classes and help curb the spread of COVID-19.
The Clarke County School District did decide to stick with virtual instruction until the local numbers come down. According to a letter from Superintendent Xernona Thomas, “Athens-Clarke County and the surrounding region are experiencing record levels of COVID cases. Our local medical facilities face a strain in their ability to treat COVID patients and other health situations that normally arise. The district initially planned to return to in-person learning for Pre-K thru 8th-grade students on Tuesday, January 19, 2021. However, the district will postpone the return to in-person classroom instruction for all students, Pre-K-12.” She did not give a date for reopening schools.
Outside Clarke County, some parents in Oconee County are upset with the county’s decision to hold in-person classes with an optional-mask policy. According to a group formed by parents in Oconee County to advocate for a mandatory-mask policy in school, a letter from local doctors encouraging mask use and a mandatory mask policy did little to sway the Board of Education.
While vaccines are here, the rollout statewide has had significant hurdles—lack of funding and staff to vaccinate the population, some resistance from health care workers in volunteering to get the vaccine, and the lack of a technology infrastructure statewide to schedule those who want to get the vaccine. Getting the vaccine out to those who want it has fallen to local health departments and health districts, which are underfunded and overstressed in dealing with the pandemic in the first place. In Athens, the Northeast Health District has set up a registration process online for anyone who wants the vaccine and is eligible, which now includes all people age 65 and older. In addition, you can call to pre-register, but there are reports of significant hold times by phone. In his weekly video message available at youtube.com/accgov, Mayor Kelly Girtz encouraged anyone wanting the most up-to-date information on getting the vaccine to visit the ACC website page on coronavirus at accgov.com/vaccine.
While categories of people who can get the vaccine under Georgia guidelines are widening to include seniors as well as front-line health care workers, other first responders and long-term-care residents—provided there is adequate supply—the lack of a uniform statewide appointment system is leading to website crashes and long wait times on the phone at county health departments. Administered by both local health departments and private providers like Piedmont Athens Regional, the vaccine program is lacking, so far. Compared to other health districts, the Northeast Health District has at least found a way to pre-register people who want to get vaccinated, by going to publichealthathens.com. On Jan. 8, Gov. Kemp announced that DPH would launch an information hub to help people navigate their way to getting an appointment.
However, distribution will be ramping up soon, Northeast Health District Director Stephen Goggans told Athens-Clarke County commissioners at a Jan. 12 work session. The district recently opened a combination testing/vaccination site at 355 Oneta St. Within six weeks, 23 sites in Clarke County will have the vaccine, with the ability to vaccinate 4,000 people per week, Goggans said.
With President-elect Joe Biden taking office and the potential for a more efficient and better-funded national effort to better distribute the vaccine, it may take a few more weeks, but many health experts are hopeful that states will get help and top-down direction in getting the vaccine to more people in the near future. In the meantime, follow public health guidelines and be mindful of your actions.
This post has been updated to correct the number of vaccines that can be provided.
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