A look at major COVID-19 developments over the past week

Pearson Middle School students exit their buses during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School on Aug. 2. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Pearson Middle School students exit their buses during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School on Aug. 2. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

It’s getting safer out there. Community spread of COVID-19 is abating in Georgia, as case counts and hospitalizations continue to taper off.

Over the past five weeks, the seven-day rolling average of confirmed and probable cases has been reduced by nearly two-thirds, down from 9,477 at the end of August to 3,173 on Thursday, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. The seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations has been cut in half during that time period.

But we’ve been through this cycle before. And last week offered a chance to look back on what the state just endured with the surge fueled by the delta variant, as well as what’s being done to protect workers and schoolchildren as Georgians brace for the cold months ahead.

Despite what some COVID-19 deniers have been espousing, children are very much at risk for the disease, having had far higher rates of infection than other age groups, a new state report shows.

Meanwhile, the proportion of eligible Georgians fully vaccinated stands just below 55%, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Concerns emerged last week about the impact of vaccine mandates on staffing at health care facilities.

Here is a look at major COVID-19 developments over the past week.

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Students wearing face masks get a tour of their new school during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School in Marietta on Aug. 2. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Students wearing face masks get a tour of their new school during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School in Marietta on Aug. 2. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Students wearing face masks get a tour of their new school during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School in Marietta on Aug. 2. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Children led state’s delta-driven surge

While adults led prior surges, a new DPH report shows that children had the highest infection rates per capita of any age group during the delta wave.

Adults aged 18-22 had 687 infections per 100,000 people in their age group during the peak in late August, according to the first installment of the COVID-19 Age Trends report, published on the DPH website last week.

At the same time, the rate among children aged 11-17 reached 1,177 infections per 100,000, about 70% higher than for those young adults. Both age groups, with the exception of 11-year-olds, were eligible for vaccination during the months preceding the peak.

Microbiologist Amber Schmidtke, whose periodic “COVID Digest” gained a following during the pandemic, wrote in her Oct. 2 issue that the portion of the new report showing the outsized surge in child infections was “particularly striking.”

Georgia public health officials had already revealed last month that newly opened schools were major sites of infections, accounting for 60% of outbreaks in the state, with over 100 by mid-September.

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A registered nurse prepares a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during a free vaccination event held at Discovery High School in Lawrenceville on Aug. 18. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

A registered nurse prepares a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during a free vaccination event held at Discovery High School in Lawrenceville on Aug. 18. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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A registered nurse prepares a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during a free vaccination event held at Discovery High School in Lawrenceville on Aug. 18. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Hospitals won’t disclose impact of vaccine mandates

The most extensive health care systems in Georgia — Piedmont Healthcare, Wellstar Health System and Emory Healthcare — told staff that unless they were vaccinated against COVID-19 by midnight Oct. 1, they’d be out of a job.

Now the three systems are staying mum about exactly how many employees quit or were terminated for failure to meet the mandate.

Piedmont said only that its staff loss was “minimal.” Wellstar said it had vaccinated “an overwhelming majority” of its staff and was extending its deadline for full vaccination to Nov. 1 for those who had received at least one shot by the original deadline. Emory gave no description of its loss.

Their responses reflect the sensitivity of the issue for hospitals throughout Georgia and the rest of the country. Critical shortages of nurses, respiratory therapists and other frontline health care workers have made many hospitals wait for other providers to make the first move, to see if the mandates prompt an exodus of workers.

“We have concerns about the impact on staffing,” said Dr. Phillip Coule, Augusta University Health System’s chief medical officer. “For example, whether or not we could lose staff over a mandate.” Some, he said, “have been misinformed about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.”

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A Delta Air Lines employee assists customers in the Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta on Tuesday. Delta is requiring new hires to be vaccinated. But, for existing employees, it is instead penalizing unvaccinated workers with a monthly $200 health insurance surcharge starting in November, along with requiring them to take weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

A Delta Air Lines employee assists customers in the Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta on Tuesday. Delta is requiring new hires to be vaccinated. But, for existing employees, it is instead penalizing unvaccinated workers with a monthly $200 health insurance surcharge starting in November, along with requiring them to take weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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A Delta Air Lines employee assists customers in the Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta on Tuesday. Delta is requiring new hires to be vaccinated. But, for existing employees, it is instead penalizing unvaccinated workers with a monthly $200 health insurance surcharge starting in November, along with requiring them to take weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Delta still not mandating vaccines for all employees

In August, United Airlines became the first major U.S. carrier to require that employees get vaccinated against COVID-19. Other major U.S. airlines, including American and Southwest, announced earlier this month that they also are requiring employees to get shots.

That leaves Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines as the only big U.S. carrier without a broad employee vaccine mandate.

Delta is requiring new hires to be vaccinated. But, for employees who were already on its payroll, it is instead penalizing those who are unvaccinated. They must pay a monthly $200 health insurance surcharge starting in November and are required to take weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks.

On Monday afternoon, Delta said its “approach to encourage a high rate of employee vaccinations continues to work,” adding that 84% of its workforce has been vaccinated so far, and that rate is “climbing daily.”

But some industry watchers say Delta, as a federal contractor, may have no choice but to adopt an all-out mandate, pointing to the Biden administration’s requirement. It goes into effect Dec. 8.

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People opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Aug. 12. (Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)

Credit: Vanessa McCray

People opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Aug. 12. (Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)

Credit: Vanessa McCray

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People opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Aug. 12. (Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Staff writers Ty Tagami, Ariel Hart, Kelly Yamanouchi and Vanessa McCray contributed to this article.