Georgia hits 1 million COVID-19 cases since pandemic’s beginning

DeKalb County: Motorists packed the driveway Monday morning at First Alliance Church located at 2512 N Druid Hills Road in Atlanta on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 where Viral Solutions provided COVID-19 testing and vaccinations with no appointments. COVID-19 cases have surpassed one million cases across the state. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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DeKalb County: Motorists packed the driveway Monday morning at First Alliance Church located at 2512 N Druid Hills Road in Atlanta on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 where Viral Solutions provided COVID-19 testing and vaccinations with no appointments. COVID-19 cases have surpassed one million cases across the state. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

‘The virus does not have pandemic fatigue,’ says expert urging masks and vaccinations.

The state of Georgia on Tuesday surpassed 1 million confirmed coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic.

The somber milestone undercounts the true toll of the disease because of testing gaps and other factors, and comes amid a vicious fourth wave that threatens to surpass the previous three.

Georgia’s hospital network is swamped, facing its highest count of COVID-19 patients since early February, and many are resorting to emergency measures to cope. Deaths also are climbing.

Despite readily available vaccines, Georgia remains one of the least vaccinated states, with less than half the overall population fully vaccinated.

“The conversation that this is about individual risk does not apply to infectious disease,” said Jodie Guest, a professor and vice chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. “The decision not to be vaccinated and not to wear a mask affects the people around us negatively.”

On Tuesday, the state reported more than 7,800 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases. The seven-day rolling average of more than 7,000 new combined cases is at its highest point since late January.

Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) also reported 24 new confirmed COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday. To date, DPH has reported 19,044 confirmed coronavirus deaths, and another 3,016 deemed probable for COVID-19.

Georgia ranked ninth worst in the nation in the rate of new infections during the seven days that ended Aug. 15 according to federal data. Georgia ranked second worst in the weekly rate of COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100 beds nationwide as of Aug. 14, behind only Florida.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged Americans, including the vaccinated, to wear face coverings indoors in areas of high transmission to help stop the spread.

Gov. Brian Kemp has rejected a statewide mask mandate, and did so again at a news briefing Monday in which he announced the extension of a state contract for expanded hospital staffing.

Kemp also announced a state offices would be closed the Friday before Labor Day to encourage unvaccinated state workers to get their shots and as gratitude for public employees who already have.

“The best advice I can give is get vaccinated if eligible and follow CDC guidance on mask wearing in areas of high transmission,” said Sarah McCool, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health. “I know that everyone is tired, and everyone has pandemic fatigue, but the virus does not have pandemic fatigue.”

Case count likely higher

The state’s 1 millionth official confirmed infection is a milestone, but it is also a sizeable undercount of the virus’ true spread. A case is considered confirmed if detected by the gold standard molecular PCR test.

More than 275,000 cases are deemed as probable — or ones detected by rapid antigen tests.

But many infections went undetected early in the pandemic, a result of insufficient testing. The rolling average of test positivity was 17.1% on Monday, meaning that as high as case counts are now, health officials aren’t testing enough to capture the true scope of the current outbreak.

State Democratic Party leaders and independent public health experts have urged Gov. Brian Kemp to reinstate coronavirus restrictions to help mitigate the virus’ spread. But while Kemp has encouraged vaccination and face coverings, the governor has rejected calls for mandates, putting him in line with counterparts in other Republican-controlled states that are also seeing some of the highest rates of infection in the nation.

Local officials in Atlanta, Savannah and many other Georgia cities and counties have reinstated their mask mandates, and many school systems have done so as well. But not all.

Schools in metro Atlanta reported about 4,000 infections since the start of fall semester as of Friday. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported at least nine Georgia counties temporarily shifted instruction online because of COVID-19 cases and another delayed opening until after Labor Day.

Some individual schools have moved to virtual instruction or quarantined classes to mitigate spread.

The CDC also recommends masking in all schools to help protect children and ensure in-person instruction can continue. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines and the vaccination rates among eligible children and younger adults are lower than for older Americans.

In recent weeks, many businesses have enacted mask and vaccine mandates for their workers. Some Atlanta area restaurants and concert halls now require proof of vaccination from their customers.

One place the surge affecting Georgia hasn’t shown up yet is at the state’s nursing homes, which were hit hard in the earlier peaks of the pandemic. Cases are up slightly, mostly among unvaccinated staffers, according to the Georgia Health Care Association. Some facilities are limiting visitors and ramping up screening of residents because of high rates of community transmission.

Most nursing home residents are vaccinated, and some nursing homes are requiring employees to get the vaccine, too.

Hospitals slammed

In June, it appeared Georgia had a handle on the pandemic, though independent public health experts warned of danger on the horizon. The state’s lagging vaccination rate left millions vulnerable to infection just as the highly contagious delta variant started to overwhelm Missouri and other states.

Just as experts feared, the wave soon found its way to Georgia and surrounding states.

It took from Feb. 22 to June 23, or about four months, for Georgia’s cumulative confirmed cases to grow from 800,000 to 900,000, DPH data show, but less than two months for Georgia’s confirmed infection count to grow by another 100,000 and hit 1 million.

But that doesn’t tell the full story of the rapid increase in cases. Georgia has added about 90,000 of those cases in just the past month.

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Pete Corson, graphic

Pete Corson, graphic

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Pete Corson, graphic

Many South Georgia counties have surpassed their winter surge highs in new infections. Hospitals along Georgia’s coast are now reporting their highest patient loads since the pandemic started.

According to DPH data, the seven-day rolling average of new confirmed infections among children is at its highest point ever. And the numbers continue to climb.

Federal data show hospitalizations among children increased 10% during the seven days that ended Aug. 14 compared to the previous seven days.

At noon Tuesday, Georgia reported nearly 4,500 patients currently hospitalized for COVID-19 or more than one in every four persons hospitalized statewide.

Two hospital systems in South Georgia — South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta and Phoebe Putney in Albany — also have recently opened monoclonal antibody infusion clinics to treat infected patients with mild to moderate symptoms in hopes of avoiding more hospitalizations.

As COVID patients take up hospital beds, they compete for resources from patients suffering other crises, such as heart attacks or injuries from car wrecks.

Other diseases and acute conditions don’t stop striking Georgians just because of a surge in the coronavirus.

About noon Tuesday, nearly nine out of 10 ICU beds statewide were in use. Five of Georgia’s 14 hospital regions reported 10 or fewer available ICU beds. Two others, Region K around Albany and Region M around Waycross, reported ICUs overcapacity.

Staff writer Carrie Teegardin contributed to this report.