Georgia coronavirus deaths fall to lowest point since July

Deaths from COVID-19 have plunged in Georgia due to the early success of vaccination campaigns, experts say. Earlier this week, people lined up at a free vaccination clinic at Truist Park sponsored by the Atlanta Braves. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Deaths from COVID-19 have plunged in Georgia due to the early success of vaccination campaigns, experts say. Earlier this week, people lined up at a free vaccination clinic at Truist Park sponsored by the Atlanta Braves. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Death rates plunge as most vulnerable become vaccinated.

Daily reported coronavirus deaths have plummeted in Georgia to their lowest point since July, a testament, public health experts say, to the ability of vaccines to reduce spread and protect the most vulnerable.

The falling death rate highlights the importance of vaccinating more Georgians, experts say, as the state loosens its pandemic restrictions and as the summer months bring travel and events that could increase spread.

“We are so fortunate to have these vaccines. It’s the way to get out of the pandemic,” said Ben Lopman, professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. “They’re incredibly effective against getting infected and even better at preventing severe illness and death.”

ExploreGeorgia campaign to end the pandemic faces toughest phase

The seven-day rolling average of confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths stood at 20 on Thursday, down from a high of 142 on Jan. 25, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data shows. It increased Friday to 22 after the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) reported 33 more confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths.

Though the state has seen improvement in the number of coronavirus deaths, an average of 20 deaths reported per day through the remainder of the year would equal more than 4,700 lives lost.

Public health experts say vaccine-acquired immunity among people 65 and older, who make up about four out of five of Georgia’s COVID-19 fatalities, is largely responsible for the drop in deaths. Deaths in long-term care facilities have plummeted.

The three federally authorized vaccines are the nation’s ticket to normalcy, experts say, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show just over a quarter of all Georgians are fully vaccinated, one of the worst percentages in the country.

And the pace of vaccinations in Georgia and nationwide is falling.

ExploreTrack the coronavirus in Georgia with the AJC's COVID-19 dashboard

The next phase of vaccinations will take more effort, experts say, to persuade skeptics and reach people with access issues. And it comes as the state has relaxed many of its coronavirus restrictions.

Gov. Brian Kemp has rescinded many of the distancing requirements for businesses such as restaurants and gyms. Concerts are returning and the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta United have expanded or announced plans to expand fan capacity at their arenas to 100%. The Braves were expecting a full house at Truist Park Friday night.

Lopman said rates of vaccination vary widely by county, meaning the relative level of protection also varies substantially. Some rural Georgia counties register 10% to 20% of residents with at least one dose, DPH data show, while several metro Atlanta counties report greater than 30%.

Gov. Brian Kemp, seen here in March, recently lifted many of the state's remaining coronavirus restrictions. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Gov. Brian Kemp, seen here in March, recently lifted many of the state's remaining coronavirus restrictions. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Towns, Fayette and Oconee counties all report vaccination rates of greater than 40% for residents with at least one shot, DPH data show.

Lopman said indoor activities and events with large crowds are safer in areas with higher vaccination rates. He said people should continue following CDC guidelines on masking and social distancing.

“If you have communities with low vaccine coverage, they will be more susceptible to outbreaks,” he said.

Decline in deaths

To date, DPH reports 20,337 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths.

The AJC examined data for COVID-19 deaths reported each day by DPH. Many of these deaths happened days or even weeks earlier as fatalities take time to confirm.

The downward trend in daily reported deaths follows a rapid decline in new infections and current hospitalizations that started in January following a devastating third wave of the virus. That wave triggered thousands of deaths and pushed Georgia’s hospital network to the brink.

Confirmed vs. probable COVID-19 deaths

Confirmed deaths include people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported as deceased to the Georgia Department of Public Health by health providers, coroners and medical examiners, those with COVID-19 as the cause of death identified on death certificates and deaths where there is evidence COVID-19 contributed to death.

Probable deaths include deceased people with COVID-19 infections indicated by rapid antigen tests, or people with compatible illness or known close contacts with people with COVID-19 infections.

Source: Georgia Department of Public Health

The seven-day rolling average of confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths reported each day was greater than 100 from Jan. 14 to Feb. 25, DPH data show.

Confirmed and suspected infections have essentially plateaued since mid-March. The current number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 is also essentially flat since late March, totaling 1,069 on Friday afternoon.

A challenging phase

The state is winding down its mass vaccination centers as demand slumps and as local health departments and private medical practices and pharmacies have ready access to shots.

Georgians 16 and up are eligible to receive vaccine. An uptick in demand, though, could follow federal authorization of vaccines for children as young as 12, which could come next week.

An AJC poll published this week found one-in-four Georgia voters say they won’t get the vaccine. A little more than half of respondents said they’d received at least one shot.

Physicians Assistant James Bellinger prepares to give a COVID-19 vaccine shot at a vaccination drive held at the Doraville MARTA transit station in March. A number of issues, including skepticism and a lack of access, are still keeping many Georgians from getting their shots. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Physicians Assistant James Bellinger prepares to give a COVID-19 vaccine shot at a vaccination drive held at the Doraville MARTA transit station in March. A number of issues, including skepticism and a lack of access, are still keeping many Georgians from getting their shots. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A third of those so far not vaccinated said they were in a wait-and-see mode, the poll by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs found. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans who say they aren’t vaccinated don’t plan to get a shot, and a quarter of unvaccinated Democrats say they won’t either.

Of those who haven’t been inoculated, many are skeptics and many have access issues.

Some don’t have paid time off or adequate childcare. Others lack reliable transportation. Some face language barriers. Many are distrustful of the health care industry or government.

Many undocumented people have stayed away fearing deportation.

Experts say all of these factors must be overcome to protect as many people as possible.

ExploreAJC Poll: 1 in 4 Georgians say they won't get the coronavirus vaccine

Ashley Deverelle, the immunization coordinator for North Georgia Health District, which covers six counties around Dalton, said a mass vaccination site opened in Canton with high demand, though it has since waned.

She said vaccination efforts have shifted to try to meet residents where they are. She visits employers and schools for education sessions and vaccine clinics, often with translators to reach people who do not speak English.

Deverelle recently spent a day in the breakroom at a Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing facility in Canton talking to workers about the shots. The district held a vaccine clinic there a few days later.

But skepticism has been hard to overcome, particularly among people aged 18 to 45, she said. Many believe they’re healthy and can easily beat the disease, or perhaps they had COVID-19 and recovered.

Though death risk is lower, young people can get very sick and transmit the virus to more vulnerable people, Deverelle said.

“Our cases are down, and it gives you a false sense of security,” she said.

Confirmed vs. probable COVID-19 deaths

Confirmed deaths include people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported as deceased to the Georgia Department of Public Health by health providers, coroners and medical examiners, those with COVID-19 as the cause of death identified on death certificates and deaths where there is evidence COVID-19 contributed to death.

Probable deaths include deceased people with COVID-19 infections indicated by rapid antigen tests, or people with compatible illness or known close contacts with people with COVID-19 infections.

Source: Georgia Department of Public Health

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