Atlanta’s COVID-19 risk increases following Memorial Day weekend

DeKalb, Fulton counties are listed as ‘medium’ risk for the first times in months as cases continue to increase across Georgia and the country

Increase in U.S. COVID rates , prompts health officials to urge mask-wearing, in some areas.Federal health officials presented an assessment from the White House on May 18.Speaking were Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID response coordinator, .and Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.We urge local leaders to encourage the use of prevention strategies like masking in public indoor settings.., Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, CDC director, via The New York Times.... and increasing access to testing and treatment for individuals, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, CDC director, via The New York Times.The COVID briefing was the first to be conducted from the White House in six weeks.According to federal data, hospital admissions related to COVID have increased by 20 percent over the past week.The Northeastern U.S. has experienced the most dramatic increase in cases.Jha urged Congress to approve additional COVID aid to address the rising cases and a potential wave in the fall.Experts weighed in, stating that now is a good time to reimplement prevention measures.We’re seeing rising cases and hospitalizations and testing positivity rates; now is not the time to end these flexibilities that allow great access to care, Ashley Thompson, American Hospital Association, via The New York Times.We are not out of the woods yet, Ashley Thompson, American Hospital Association, via The New York Times.We could be entering a period where we have an increased number of cases but a substantially decreased severity of illness, Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, University of Minnesota, via The New York Times.... so that we see fewer hospitalizations and many fewer deaths, Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, University of Minnesota, via The New York Times

The risk of COVID-19 infection is rising in metro Atlanta, and Memorial Day Weekend likely added gasoline to an already increasing flame.

The latest data from state health officials shows a spike in positive COVID-19 cases after Georgians returned home from gatherings and traveling. There were more than 5,300 confirmed cases across the state Wednesday, which is more than double the average number of infections over the past few weeks.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said the sharp uptick isn’t surprising, given the typical reporting delay that takes place during holidays. However, most of the state and country are seeing high levels of COVID transmission, spurred by multiple omicron subvariants that are rapidly infecting — and reinfecting — Americans regardless of their vaccination status. The wave has epidemiologists worried that it could burden hospitals or cause further virus mutation that could cause more severe illness.

“The United States is on fire,” Dr. Jayne Morgan, the executive director of Piedmont Healthcare COVID-19 task force, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The entire map is almost completely red, either high or substantial (COVID transmission).”

Morgan is referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s community transmission map, which shows the country — and Georgia — as overflowing with the risk of COVID infection. Nearly 69% of U.S. counties are colored red, meaning the risk is high.

This is a map of COVID-19 community transmission in the United States that focuses on infection rates and risk.

Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

icon to expand image

Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When the CDC takes hospitalizations and ICU capacities into account, the result is more tepid, but the risk is still increasing in Georgia. Six counties are colored yellow, indicating a medium risk, but DeKalb and Fulton counties are included among the higher-risk counties for the first time in months. The other counties are in rural areas of the state outside of metro Atlanta.

This is a COVID-19 community infection map that takes into account current hospitalizations and ICU bed capacities.

Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

icon to expand image

Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Dr. Robert Jansen, the chief medical officer at the Grady Health System, said it’s tough to tell how high infection rates truly are since official infection numbers are likely severely undercounted.

“We really don’t have a good handle on what the disease burden is in the community because so many people are doing home tests that are not reported,” he said. Epidemiologists estimate that cases could be five to ten times higher than official counts.

He said Grady Memorial Hospital currently has about 30 infected patients, which is about triple the number from a month ago. But that pales in comparison to this past winter, the highest rate of COVID infections Georgia has seen, where about 285 patients were infected.

Grady’s hospital patients are a small fraction of the thousands of Georgians who tested positive for COVID since Memorial Day Weekend, especially the 5,300 positive tests on Wednesday. Dr. Cherie Drenzek, the state epidemiologist with Georgia Department of Public Health, said the spike was predicated by a lull in case reporting over the holiday weekend, indicating it’s a reporting delay.

“The reporting facilities won’t start reporting until the day after the holiday, so if we have really low numbers over the weekend, it’s essentially that everybody reported on Tuesday,” she said. “That’s essentially what happened... It’s really important to look at trends over time, not just day-to-day fluctuations.”

She also took some solace in the fact that hospitalizations are increasing at a much slower rate. As of Wednesday, 574 Georgians were hospitalized due to COVID-19, which remains as one of the lowest figures since the onset of COVID-19. But that number bottomed out in the low 300s in April, showing hospitalizations are starting to increase.

“The pandemic is not over,” Drenzek said. “We’re tired of the pandemic as a nation and as a globe, but it doesn’t tire of us. It’s important to continue to remind individuals that it’s important to protect yourself as much as possible.”

She urged recent travelers to weigh their risk and get tested if they begin to show symptoms. Health experts, including Jansen, also encouraged elderly Georgians and those in a high-risk group to wear masks in crowded places.

“I encourage people who are concerned to wear a mask in public,” he said. “I still do in some public settings.”

In addition, health experts emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated and boosted, which they said continues to keep at-risk patients out of the hospital.

“This is not the time to let your guard down,” Morgan said. “In fact, this is the time to reinforce your defenses.”