A look at major coronavirus developments over the past week

Baseball legend Hank Aaron gets a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine shot at Morehouse School of Medicine on Tuesday. (Eric Stirgus / Eric.Stirgus@ajc.com)
Baseball legend Hank Aaron gets a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine shot at Morehouse School of Medicine on Tuesday. (Eric Stirgus / Eric.Stirgus@ajc.com)

Credit: Eric Stirgus / Eric.Stirgus@ajc.com

Credit: Eric Stirgus / Eric.Stirgus@ajc.com

The new year is off to a tumultuous start. While a mob’s invasion of the U.S. Capitol shook the nation, the raging pandemic threatened to bring Georgia’s health care system to its knees.

It seems that nowhere near enough people heeded health experts’ warnings to avoid holiday gatherings. The state is paying a price.

“If you are someone who gathered outside of your household for New Year’s Eve, please consider yourself to be infected and quarantine for the 14 days that follow,” public health researcher Amber Schmidtke exhorted Georgians in her widely read blog.

Hospital intensive care units continue filling to capacity across the state, with infection numbers reaching historic highs. Exhausted staffers are struggling to care for an onslaught of patients amid a shortage of workers.

Compounding the crisis, a variant super-spreader strain of COVID-19 has already made its way to Georgia. Meanwhile, the state lags in the race to vaccinate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday reported Georgia has the lowest rate of inoculations among all states and the District of Columbia.

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

Anna Williams, a staff member at Woodland Ridge Assisted Living, receives support from Bear Mahon, the chief operating officer, as she gets her COVID-19 vaccine. She and 90 other residents and care providers opted for vaccines on Jan. 2.
Anna Williams, a staff member at Woodland Ridge Assisted Living, receives support from Bear Mahon, the chief operating officer, as she gets her COVID-19 vaccine. She and 90 other residents and care providers opted for vaccines on Jan. 2.

Frustration grows over vaccine rollout

Across Georgia, people who want to be vaccinated can’t find out when and how they’ll get the shots, even though some health care providers say they received hundreds more doses than they requested. And, while most residents will have to wait weeks or months before receiving their first shots, some of those at front of the line — health care personnel — have turned down theirs.

Those issues are fueling anger about the state’s vaccination program, as the toll from COVID-19 mounts.

Gov. Brian Kemp and State Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said late last month that, in parts of the state where there are surplus vaccines, they’ll expand the pool of people eligible to receive shots to include those over age 65, as well as to police officers and firefighters.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a press briefing providing an update on the COVID-19 vaccine on Friday at the Georgia Capitol. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a press briefing providing an update on the COVID-19 vaccine on Friday at the Georgia Capitol. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Kemp announces new vaccine effort

Amid the growing frustration, particularly from elderly residents, Gov. Kemp said Friday that the state health department will soon share more information on its website about vaccination availability.

Through the weekend, there will be four mass vaccination sites for health care workers in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, Kemp said.

Many Georgians have complained that their calls go unanswered at some county health offices and that websites don’t work.

Regarding the state’s dismal vaccination rate, Kemp said there’s been a significant delay by some officials in reporting vaccinations, while acknowledging problems communicating information about where people can get the vaccine. He asked Georgians for patience, saying the state has a limited supply.

Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey provides updates on COVID-19 at a press conference before receiving her vaccination at Grady Hospital on December 17. (Steve Schaefer / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey provides updates on COVID-19 at a press conference before receiving her vaccination at Grady Hospital on December 17. (Steve Schaefer / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

New COVID-19 strain from U.K. found in Georgia

Georgia announced on Tuesday its first confirmed case of the new coronavirus strain that has overwhelmed the United Kingdom’s medical system.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said the case was discovered in an 18-year-old with no travel history. The teen, who was not identified, is isolating at his home, and state officials are working to identify, monitor and test his close contacts.

The U.K. strain, also known as B.1.1.7, is believed to be much more contagious than the typical SARS-CoV-2 virus. The variant is not believed to be more lethal or cause more severe illness once a patient is infected.

“The emergence of this variant in our state should be a wake-up call for all Georgians,” Commissioner Toomey said.

The Cherokee County School District has canceled in-person learning for all of its 42,200 students next week.
The Cherokee County School District has canceled in-person learning for all of its 42,200 students next week.

Surge forces Cherokee schools to close classrooms

With at least 400 teachers and staff members unable to work because they are sick with COVID-19 or in quarantine following an exposure, the Cherokee County School District canceled in-person learning for all of its 42,200 students next week.

Superintendent Dr. Brian Hightower said the district tentatively plans to reopen classrooms on Jan. 19.

Many in the community have called on the district to mandate masks or face coverings. Instead of implementing a requirement, the district changed its policy to state mask usage was “expected” when students can’t socially distance.

It also launched two contests to award prizes to students who created posters and videos that promote mask-wearing.

Georgia National Guardsmen disinfect a resident's room at a nursing home in Atlanta amid the coronavirus pandemic in April.
Georgia National Guardsmen disinfect a resident's room at a nursing home in Atlanta amid the coronavirus pandemic in April.

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

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

800 National Guardsmen have tested positive

The total number of Georgia National Guard members who have tested positive for COVID-19 has more than doubled to 800 since last summer, when hundreds were dispatched to help fight the spread of the disease and boost security amid the protests for racial justice.

The Georgia guardsmen represent nearly 6% of the 13,791 guardsmen who have tested positive nationwide.

Some Georgia National Guard members will begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations this week, Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden Jr., Georgia’s adjutant general, said.

New jobless claims increased 65% in Georgia over the past week, as the pandemic’s slow recovery stretched into 2021.
New jobless claims increased 65% in Georgia over the past week, as the pandemic’s slow recovery stretched into 2021.

Credit: Mathieu Turle / Unsplash

Credit: Mathieu Turle / Unsplash

Unemployment claims increase

New jobless claims jumped 65% in Georgia in the past week as the pandemic’s slow recovery stretched into 2021.

More than 31,000 people filed initial jobless claims for the week ending Jan. 2, joining a roughly half-million people already out of work. The number of new claims is up from about 19,000 the week before.

Some will be getting help from a federal pandemic package passed by Congress last month.

About 167,000 Georgians had federal unemployment benefits extended because of the legislation. Also eligible to receive more federal payments are 239,000 who saw their benefits run out before Congress reached an agreement.

Staff writers Yamil Berard, Carrie Teegardin, Eric Stirgus, J. Scott Trubey, Ariel Hart, Kristal Dixon, Jeremy Redmon and Michael E. Kanell contributed to this article.

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