Georgia and the United States could be heading for a new wave of COVID-19, but public health officials are hoping new infections won’t bring new hospitalizations and deaths as in previous waves since more residents are now vaccinated.
In both the U.S. and Georgia, COVID-19 case numbers have been relatively flat, though data show a type of COVID-19 called the BA.5 subvariant has increased rapidly and now makes up 65% of cases.
“This BA.5 subvariant is much more transmissible and has really an inherent increased ability to evade immunity, both from natural infection and also from earlier vaccine as well,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Cherie Drenzek at a state Department of Public Health meeting Tuesday. “Because of this, it’s likely that we will experience future case increases as well, as the (subvariant) continues to spread.”
The average number of infections in Georgia rose from 1,650 in the last week of May to 2,244 in the last week of June, and hospitalizations are also moving in the wrong direction.
COVID-19 patients made up 7.5% of all admissions in Georgia Tuesday, up from 6.8% the week before, according to the Georgia Hospital Association. Around this time last month, COVID patients made up about 4.8% of admissions. The state’s highest rate came in September 2021, when 35.7% of hospital patients were being treated for COVID-19.
“Our hospitalizations are bumping up just a little, but our deaths are definitely decreasing as well,” Drenzek said. “The severe outcomes that we were seeing relative to case numbers earlier are not there. These boosters are still holding very well against severe outcomes, and I want to just highlight as well, even though with this BA.5 rising, just looking at the daily number of cases is not always an accurate view of what’s going on, we’re seeing increased community transmission, the magnitude of this wave is greater than the number shown because of home testing and other factors.”
“No matter what, caution and prevention measures, even the traditional ones, from the very beginning, are very prudent, but especially vaccination and boosting,” she added.
Drenzek was seconded by Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey.
“I hear people say to me just at the store, not necessarily here in the public health setting, but as I meet them on the street, ‘Why should I get vaccinated? Why should I get boosted? I know people who are getting infected, and they had all these boosters, they had all the vaccines,’” she said. “And I just want to remind everyone, how not only how important it is, but that we don’t see the increase in deaths, we don’t see the increase in hospitalizations reciprocal to what we know are the number of cases increasing in the community.”
About 55% of Georgia residents are fully vaccinated, putting the state near the bottom of national rankings. About 67% of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by the New York Times.
To help convince those remaining unvaccinated Georgians, the state health department is introducing a new advertising campaign on broadcast and social media, as well as on billboards and bus stops.
The campaign, called “It’s that simple,” features photographs of smiling people enjoying activities like shopping, dining out and attending church.
“We’re going after a COVID-weary public by not telling them what to do but reminding them of some of the things that they’ve missed the last few years,” said department communications director Nancy Nydam. “And we’re relying heavily on images that remind people about those things and saying that those are possible again, in large part due to COVID vax and boosters.”
The Biden administration Tuesday released details of its strategy for managing the BA.5 strain, which includes providing vaccines, boosters and masks and educating the public about how to use them.
“To confront BA.5, the Administration will continue mobilizing the full strength and capabilities of the federal government and working with state and local leaders, health care workers, the private sector, and community- and faith-based organizations to ensure that the American people have easy and convenient access to and use vaccines, tests, and treatments,” the White House said in a statement.
Still, government efforts to promote COVID-19 safety continue to be met with skepticism. Last summer, Toomey said several events had been disrupted by anti-vaccine protesters, and one had been shut down.
On Tuesday, former Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler retweeted a Wall Street Journal editorial critiquing Biden for extending the COVID-19 public health emergency.
“The government WANTS an endless COVID emergency to justify the endless expansion of the welfare state,” Loeffler wrote. “Not just vote-buying ahead of the midterms, but socialism. It’s always been about control.”
This story was written by Ross Williams, Reporter at the Georgia Recorder, where this story first appeared.