Georgia public health officials: Most COVID-19 outbreaks now in schools

In this file photo, a school bus arrives for the first day back to school in Jefferson. Since school opened in August, the number of COVID-19 cases among children has surged. (Hyosub Shin /


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In this file photo, a school bus arrives for the first day back to school in Jefferson. Since school opened in August, the number of COVID-19 cases among children has surged. (Hyosub Shin /



As coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in recent weeks across Georgia, there’s one age group that state health officials say stands out for getting sick and spreading the virus — children.

At a Georgia Department of Public Health board meeting Tuesday, state epidemiologist Dr. Cherie Drenzek said that about 60% of all COVID-19 outbreaks in Georgia now take place in K-12 schools, with more than 100 school outbreaks so far.

Compared to previous surges of the pandemic, cases among school-age children have increased seven-fold, she said as she updated the board on hospitalizations, deaths, and the overall trendline of the pandemic.

“There has been a tremendous impact on school-aged children over the past six weeks,” she said.

Severe illness from COVID-19 is still uncommon in children. However, enough kids have become infected that pediatric hospitals have been filling up. Federal health data show 381 Georgians under age 18 were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the seven days that ended Sept. 11. That is more than double the number of admissions from the same period a month earlier and nearly 15 times the number hospitalized in the week after the July 4 holiday.

Four Georgia children died in August after contracting the coronavirus, Drenzek said. That was more than any other month during the pandemic.

Adding to the concerns: Doctors are still trying to understand the long-term impact of the virus on the young, including Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, a rare ailment that’s dogged some kids who had COVID-19.

Drenzek noted an encouraging slight dip in infections and hospitalizations but said it was too early to know whether the downward trend line will take hold.

As of Tuesday, state data show Georgia hospitals were caring for 5,400 COVID-19 patients. That is down from a pandemic high of more than 6,000 reached two weeks ago. However, hospitals are still overwhelmed by the demands for care, and intensive care units across the state continue to be packed with extremely ill patients.

Other public health employees at the meeting provided updates on increasing COVID-19 testing and efforts to get more Georgians vaccinated.

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. But in her presentation, Drenzek pointed out that most of the hospitalized children are between the ages of 5 to 17. Many of those children, she said, likely were eligible to be vaccinated and therefore, “hospitalization could have potentially been prevented.”

Statewide, the vast majority of all Georgians hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The meeting Tuesday, at times, got emotional. Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey cried when talking about public health workers across the state getting harassed while trying to administer vaccines.

For her, this latest wave of COVID-19 sickness and death also carries echoes of another health crisis going back several decades.

Toomey said a couple of weeks ago, several young men she either knew personally or who were relatives of people she works with died of COVID-19.

“I almost had a sense I was back in San Francisco in the ‘80s practicing at San Francisco General in the early HIV epidemic before we had anything but testing,” she said. “It was a bizarre PTSD moment for me remembering another time when you feel helpless in the face of so many deaths and not able to turn that around despite an effective vaccine.”

The board, which helps to form policy and advise the Department of Public Health, made no recommendations during the meeting. They hadn’t met since June, before the pandemic’s fourth wave overwhelmed the state. But the board is scheduled to meet every month through the end of the year.

Staff writers J. Scott Trubey and Carrie Teegardin contributed to this article.

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