Can Georgia avert another holiday COVID surge?

November 19, 2021 Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: Travelers were abound on Friday, Nov.19,2021 at the domestic side of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as the Airport is preparing for an expected 2.22 million passengers for the Thanksgiving travel period starting this Saturday and running through the Monday after the holiday, a rebound from last year when passenger counts were down 40% during the period. The holiday rush will be one of the biggest tests for airlines, which have struggled with staffing shortages and occasional operational meltdowns this year. ÒWe expect it to be very busy and even a bit frenetic at times,Ó said Priceline CEO Brett Keller during a Washington Post Live event this week. With hotels and airlines trying to re-staff after pandemic cutbacks, ÒitÕs going to be a bit crazy this year.Ó Wednesday before the holiday and the Sunday afterward are expected to be the busiest days of the Thanksgiving period, according to travel experts.
AAA predicts 1.6 million people in Georgia will travel for Thanksgiving, including more than 108,000 taking flights. That will bring total traveler counts to a level just 3% shy of 2019 levels, with airline passenger counts within 13% of 2019 levels. Domestic leisure air travel has almost completely recovered to 2019 levels, according to AAA and travel experts. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines expects to handle as many as 5.6 million passengers from this Friday through the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, nearly three times the 2.2 million it saw during the holiday period last year but still short of the 6.3 million for Thanksgiving 2019. ( John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
November 19, 2021 Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: Travelers were abound on Friday, Nov.19,2021 at the domestic side of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as the Airport is preparing for an expected 2.22 million passengers for the Thanksgiving travel period starting this Saturday and running through the Monday after the holiday, a rebound from last year when passenger counts were down 40% during the period. The holiday rush will be one of the biggest tests for airlines, which have struggled with staffing shortages and occasional operational meltdowns this year. ÒWe expect it to be very busy and even a bit frenetic at times,Ó said Priceline CEO Brett Keller during a Washington Post Live event this week. With hotels and airlines trying to re-staff after pandemic cutbacks, ÒitÕs going to be a bit crazy this year.Ó Wednesday before the holiday and the Sunday afterward are expected to be the busiest days of the Thanksgiving period, according to travel experts. AAA predicts 1.6 million people in Georgia will travel for Thanksgiving, including more than 108,000 taking flights. That will bring total traveler counts to a level just 3% shy of 2019 levels, with airline passenger counts within 13% of 2019 levels. Domestic leisure air travel has almost completely recovered to 2019 levels, according to AAA and travel experts. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines expects to handle as many as 5.6 million passengers from this Friday through the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, nearly three times the 2.2 million it saw during the holiday period last year but still short of the 6.3 million for Thanksgiving 2019. ( John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Taking advantage of new tools, setting ground rules can protect loved ones

Last year at this time, the state of Georgia was about to be walloped by the biggest wave in the coronavirus pandemic, a wave that remains the pandemic’s most deadly. With or without precautions, families gathered for Thanksgiving and then Christmas; people celebrated, shopped and dined.

Almost no one was vaccinated yet.

Within days of Thanksgiving the new cases began, then soared, not to fall to earth until the following year.

The death toll that followed weeks later, measured from a low point of deaths on Dec. 27 to a high in late January and tailing off through April, was 7,800 in Georgia, said Amber Schmidtke, who tracks the Georgia data. That surpassed the summer 2020 surge by more than half, and it’s 1,000 more deaths than this year’s delta surge. It’s more deaths than if 9/11 happened twice, just in Georgia.

The question is what’s different this year. Schmidtke and some epidemiologists are concerned, because the delta surge that just ended in Georgia has plateaued at an uncomfortably high level. There are still enough cases circulating here that the virus has a launching pad.

But this year, there is something celebrants can do.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

New tools for this year’s gatherings are vaccines, including booster shots, and over-the-counter rapid at-home tests that can signal when a guest — even a vaccinated one — is accidentally carrying the virus. Last year’s practice of wearing masks while shopping remains important. Keeping gatherings well ventilated brings even more protection.

The simmering plateau right now means measures are important. Currently, an average of 1,000 people a day are reported newly infected, compared to an average of 400 before the delta surge.

ajc.com

Credit: Staff

Without precautions, that number could shoot up over the holidays. It’s the gatherings, and “the sequence, the tempo,” Schmidtke said. “It’s just it’s sort of a perfect storm of gatherings that keep momentum building.”

“I do think that there are ways that we can have a more normal Thanksgiving or a more normal Christmas holiday,” Schmidtke said. “But we have to be smart about it, right?”

It may not feel like it, but families are writing the future of the next two months as they make their holiday plans, said Dr. Dianna Grant, chief medical officer of Phoebe Putney Health System. Like other systems, Phoebe, in southwest Georgia, was overwhelmed by COVID-19 in the holiday surge and had to shut down care for elective procedures. Phoebe CEO Scott Steiner noted the current low numbers of COVID-19 patients but asked people to think ahead.

“We remember that this time last year our numbers were also relatively low before increasing significantly during and after the holidays. The difference now is that many people are vaccinated,” he said in a statement to the press. “We urge anyone who is not yet vaccinated to get their shots as soon as possible to protect themselves and the loved ones they will spend time with this holiday season.” The immune response takes a week or two after the shot to ramp up.

ajc.com

Credit: Staff

This is how it’s going to work for Dr. Grant’s Thanksgiving: Her sister, a breast cancer survivor, has come to visit for two weeks. They’re both fully vaccinated and had their boosters. Both of them took a rapid test as soon as her sister arrived, and they will again. The family they’ll gather with will also be vaccinated. An unvaccinated relative isn’t invited.

The rapid at-home tests that Grant and her sister used could be a game changer for events like this, says Dr. Michael Mina, a former researcher at Emory and Harvard who just joined an online health company to help ramp up at-home testing. While rapid tests aren’t always as sensitive as laboratory tests, he said, addressing a reporter on Twitter, for meetings they are just as accurate when it matters most: when the person is highly infectious.

Use all these tools together, experts advise. “Vaccinate. Even a single dose for your kid 10 days prior is an incredible safeguard,” Mina wrote.

2021 Holidays: Tools for Safety

Last year, federal and state health officials simply asked people not to gather for the holidays. This year there are new tools to fight the spread of the virus

  • At-home rapid antigen COVID tests are available in drugstores and online. Experts say a same-day rapid antigen test isn’t great for diagnosis, but is good for answering the question: Are you contagious today? If the result is positive, isolate.
  • Vaccination and booster shots, taken in time for immunity to build over 10 or 14 days.
  • Communication. Hosts should communicate the ground rules. They ask guests to know if they’re vaccinated.

Still useful:

  • Masks: Wear them around the vulnerable and when holiday shopping.
  • Ventilation. Open windows and doors when possible. If the weather’s okay, gather outside.
  • For gathering inside, use portable HEPA filters. In studies, two placed running near an infected person reduced the amount of virus in the room by more than half.

Barbara Rothbaum, a psychiatry professor at Emory School of Medicine, said hosts of holiday gatherings set the rules, and it’s important for them to be frank about vaccine requirements and other requirements. Ideally, they should communicate the plan well in advance for guests to plan accordingly.

“If you are the host, you say what your policy is,” said Rothbaum. “Being upfront about everything takes out the weirdness and drama out of this and lets the host tell everyone what they would like them to do.”

Rothbaum said she recently hosted a “COVID-safe” work get-together outside, and on the invitation she included this line: Only vaccinated people, please.

ExploreGeorgia public health workers tout declining COVID cases, caution on winter

Rothbaum said she also requested guests get tested for COVID-19 before the gathering, and for those who didn’t get around to it, she set up a table for on-the-spot rapid tests.

Of course, it’s not always so simple. Some family members have children too young to be vaccinated. A person who is vaccinated may be invited to a party hosted by family and friends who are unvaccinated — or vice versa. A host may request their guests not only be vaccinated but have a booster dose as well.

The key, Rothbaum said is to talk openly, honestly and work together to find solutions, she said. But ultimately, she said the host gets to sets the rules.

ExploreWhere to find COVID vaccine appointments for children

“If a person has been asked to get a booster and has not gotten one, they can say, ‘I have not been able to get a booster, but these are my precautions I have been taking,’ she suggested. “Ask, ‘Are you OK with it?’ and have a conversation about it.”

Rothbaum looks forward to hosting her two adult children over Thanksgiving. They both plan to get a coronavirus test before traveling and upon arrival.

“In some ways, we are so much better with having vaccines and kids being able to get vaccinated and getting boosters,” she said. “But we still have hot spots and we are still in a pandemic. We’ve been so careful for over a year and a half now and there’s a part of us that is thinking don’t screw it up now.”

Caption
Denice Dudley and husband Phillip Dudley and their daughters Marian (red dress) who is 7, and Evelyn (green dress) who is 4. (Submitted photo)

Credit: Submitted photo

Denice Dudley and husband Phillip Dudley and their daughters Marian (red dress) who is 7, and Evelyn (green dress) who is 4. (Submitted photo)
Caption
Denice Dudley and husband Phillip Dudley and their daughters Marian (red dress) who is 7, and Evelyn (green dress) who is 4. (Submitted photo)

Credit: Submitted photo

Credit: Submitted photo

This time a year ago, Denice Dudley and her family were in quarantine at home in Dunwoody after a COVID-19 exposure. Now she’s preparing for a trip to spend the holiday with her in-laws in Alabama.

The adults are fully vaccinated, and everyone, including one of her daughters too young to be vaccinated, takes precautions such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds.

Dudley said, “I know things are still different,” but she feels a sense of a deep sense of gratitude this holiday season.

Caption
Marian Dudley (red dress) and Evelyn (green dress), the daughters of Denice and Phillip Dudley, recently went to an outdoor Santa visit in their neighborhood. (Submitted photo)

Credit: Submitted photo

Marian  Dudley (red dress) and Evelyn (green dress), the daughters of Denice and Phillip Dudley, recently went to an outdoor Santa visit in their neighborhood. (Submitted photo)
Caption
Marian Dudley (red dress) and Evelyn (green dress), the daughters of Denice and Phillip Dudley, recently went to an outdoor Santa visit in their neighborhood. (Submitted photo)

Credit: Submitted photo

Credit: Submitted photo

“I have a different perspective now,” said Dudley Thursday morning. “We are safe and healthy and we will get to see family over the holidays – that’s the important stuff right there.”

But hours later, the Dudley family was thrown a curveball. The family learned that a classmate in their daughter’s day care tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. The Dudleys are isolating now, and they’ll get tested after five to seven days. If they test negative, they still hope to gather for Thanksgiving.