Omicron surge: Georgia to send National Guard to hospitals, test sites

Craig Geter, center, waits in line for COVID testing at the Fulton County Center for Health and Rehabilitation on Dec. 28, 2021. Geter said he was getting tested because he was having some cold symptoms and had been turned away from two other testing sites after waiting in line because he didn’t have an appointment. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Craig Geter, center, waits in line for COVID testing at the Fulton County Center for Health and Rehabilitation on Dec. 28, 2021. Geter said he was getting tested because he was having some cold symptoms and had been turned away from two other testing sites after waiting in line because he didn’t have an appointment. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Georgia set a new single-day record Tuesday for confirmed and probable coronavirus infections as the omicron variant rips through the state.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office says he plans no new restrictions, though public health officials are working to assign National Guard troops to aid beleaguered hospitals and testing sites.

The state Department of Public Health reported 13,670 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases, shattering a previous record set in January. And public health experts say infections will continue to build in the wake of holiday gatherings.

Vehicles idled for blocks outside of several COVID-19 testing centers in the Atlanta area on Tuesday. Rapid tests were difficult to find in local stores or even online.

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In this file photo, People line up for Covid testing at the Viral Solutions drive-through testing site in Decatur last week. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

In this file photo, People line up for Covid testing at the Viral Solutions drive-through testing site in Decatur last week. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

caption arrowCaption
In this file photo, People line up for Covid testing at the Viral Solutions drive-through testing site in Decatur last week. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Kemp’s office said that DPH is working to increase testing capacity, and updated guidance shortening quarantine periods from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should help providers ease staffing shortages.

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Kemp previously authorized the use of 2,500 National Guard troops to assist Georgia hospitals in August.

In the coming days, the Georgia Department of Community Health “will be accessing needs and handing out assignments to the most high-need areas — like testing sites and hospitals,” Kemp spokeswoman Katie Byrd said in an email.

Byrd said Kemp remains “in constant communication with hospital leadership on their experiences and requests of the state.”

The governor will hold five calls with leaders of nine health systems across the state tomorrow, Byrd said, and those calls will help inform how the state deploys resources.

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Kemp, who is fully vaccinated and received a booster shot, will continue to urge people to discuss the benefits of vaccination with their doctors, Byrd said.

“Ultimately, he feels that we must trust our citizens to do what’s right for themselves and their families,” she said. “He will not be implementing any measures that shutter businesses or divide the vaccinated from the unvaccinated or the masked from the unmasked.”

The seven-day rolling average of new confirmed and probable infections on Tuesday was more than 11 times what it was a month earlier. Test positivity is so high — it topped 30% on Monday and Tuesday — that the dizzying numbers of new infections reported in recent days is likely just a fraction of how many are out there, health officials said.

A positivity rate of 10% or higher is considered “high” transmission, according to the CDC.

When the COVID-19 percent positive rate is high, the chances of encountering someone with the virus at the grocery store, for example, is much higher than when the rate is low in the area.

While omicron spreads much faster than prior strains of the virus, new research suggests omicron infections more often result in milder illness than earlier variants, including delta, which battered Georgia this summer, slamming hospitals and leading to thousands of deaths.

Still, public health experts warn omicron could significantly disrupt life and swamp hospitals because it infects people more efficiently and is able to evade vaccine defenses.

“Our concern with omicron continues to be how quickly and easily it spreads,” DPH Commissioner Dr. Kathleen E. Toomey said in an email. “With the very high overall number of people being infected, if only a fraction of them become sick enough to require hospitalization, it could be enough to overwhelm an already stressed health care system.

“Vaccination and boosters for those who are eligible are key to stopping the spread of COVID,” she said. “While omicron may be overtaking delta as the dominant variant, delta persists and as we know, can cause severe illness, particularly in those individuals who remain unvaccinated.”

Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb, Douglas, Henry, Fayette, Fulton, Newton, Paulding and Rockdale counties each reported their highest single-day totals for new infections in the past week. Fulton reported 2,103 new confirmed and probable infections on Christmas, nearly double the county’s previous high on Jan. 7.

“We are in the middle of an exploding epidemic,” said Dr. Lynn Paxton, head of the state-run Fulton Board of Health.

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A health care worker prepares a Pfizer booster shot at the Viral Solutions drive-up COVID booster vaccinations and testing site on North Druid Hills Road earlier this month in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

A health care worker prepares a Pfizer booster shot at the Viral Solutions drive-up COVID booster vaccinations and testing site on North Druid Hills Road earlier this month in Atlanta.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
A health care worker prepares a Pfizer booster shot at the Viral Solutions drive-up COVID booster vaccinations and testing site on North Druid Hills Road earlier this month in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

This sudden increase, she said, has many repercussions: The latest data shows 92% to 94% of people in Fulton hospitals are unvaccinated.

“We are seeing the strain on the medical facilities,” Paxton said, adding that there are no lines at their vaccination centers.

That’s why, she said, the National Guard will help smooth out busy testing sites.

“Basically, the cavalry is coming in,” she said.

Critics of the state’s response said more action is needed. Local leaders, meanwhile, have reinstated mask ordinances in Atlanta.

On Tuesday, Atlanta officials canceled this year’s Peach Drop on New Year’s Eve. Emory University officials also announced that the school’s next semester will begin online to curb the spread of the virus.

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“All we have to do is look at where omicron started in parts of the Midwest and Northeast to know what’s ahead for Georgia, particularly in the absence of more aggressive action,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health.

With the omicron variant driving a flurry of infections, medical workers are bracing for more misery in the weeks ahead.

The rolling average of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Georgia — 1,621 — is up 90% since Thanksgiving. On Tuesday at 2:30 p.m., nearly 2,200 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 statewide. That’s the most since mid-October when the delta wave was in decline.

The number of children hospitalized for COVID-19 at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has nearly tripled since Dec. 21 and rose to 62 as of Tuesday.

Booster shots of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been shown to be effective against omicron. Even two shots of both Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or a single shot of Johnson & Johnson is significantly better than no vaccination in protecting against severe disease or death.

Dr. Michael Eriksen, founding dean of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, said the next few weeks call for “extreme” vigilance for everyone.

“Do more than you’ve done before and take the next step, whether that is getting vaccinated, boosted, avoiding crowds, wearing a mask or home testing. Whatever you have been doing in the past, do one thing more,” he said.

Heiman said rural parts of the state should brace for a surge in the days and weeks ahead.

“What we’re seeing in the metro area now will be spreading to the more rural parts of the state in short order,” Heiman said.