Georgia leaders stay on a passive course amid omicron threat

Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday that he had spoken with Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey that morning about the omicron threat and "we’ll continue to monitor." The governor is seen here with Dr. Toomey giving an update about COVID in Georgia at the State Capitol in September. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday that he had spoken with Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey that morning about the omicron threat and "we’ll continue to monitor." The governor is seen here with Dr. Toomey giving an update about COVID in Georgia at the State Capitol in September. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

State’s 25 confirmed cases are likely a sliver of the true number, officials say

With a rapidly spreading COVID-19 variant threatening the state just as families prepare to gather indoors for the holidays, Georgia’s leaders are offering few ideas to blunt another surge.

Gov. Brian Kemp, who has been criticized this year for his hands-off approach to the pandemic and his resistance to mask and vaccine mandates, struck an optimistic tone when asked about the omicron variant at an Atlanta Community Food Bank event on Monday. Kemp said it doesn’t seem as potent as the delta variant, and that he had spoken that morning with Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey and they will “continue to monitor.”

Asked if any new measures will be taken, Kemp said, “Not at this point. I think from looking where we are, we’re still holding our own.”

But other leaders are gearing up their responses. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he is distributing 500 million free home coronavirus tests, while Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an executive order to reinstate the city’s indoor mask mandate.

Another surge may already be here. The CDC’s regional estimates for Georgia and seven other Southern states calculate that omicron made up more than 95% of all new cases last week, up from 37% the week prior. The percentages are based on a small number of positive COVID samples that are fully tested to determine which variant they are.

Like other strains of coronavirus, omicron poses the highest risk for serious illness in the unvaccinated. With only 53% of the state’s population fully vaccinated, that makes Georgia a sitting duck for another wave that could overwhelm hospitals again, experts say.

“I don’t think we are OK,” said Eva Lee, director of the Georgia Center for Operations Research in Medicine and Healthcare. “I mean, look at Europe. I don’t understand what Kemp is thinking, or any of the public health leaders who somehow think that we will do better than all the other countries.”

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Jamye Velazquez places a testing kit on a customer’s windshield while working at the Viral Solutions drive-through COVID testing site in Decatur on Tuesday. The line stretched more than a block as people prepared for Christmas travel. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Jamye Velazquez places a testing kit on a customer’s windshield while working at the Viral Solutions drive-through COVID testing site in Decatur on Tuesday. The line stretched more than a block as people prepared for Christmas travel.  (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Jamye Velazquez places a testing kit on a customer’s windshield while working at the Viral Solutions drive-through COVID testing site in Decatur on Tuesday. The line stretched more than a block as people prepared for Christmas travel. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Kemp’s stance against taking new action against the omicron surge risks the lives of Georgians, said Amber Schmidtke, a public health researcher who has been tracking Georgia’s cases. This variant is so transmissible that it needs an immediate, coordinated government response, she said.

Statewide mask requirements and limits on the size of gatherings could all work to slow what could be a “massive disruption” to the operation of schools, hospitals and commerce, she said.

“Georgia is wasting precious time to prepare for what is coming,” Dr. Schmidtke said. “That is unfortunate because it will cost lives.”

But Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean for Emory School of Medicine and a professor of global health and epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health, said there is only so much government leaders can do at this point.

Echoing Biden’s plan to offer better access to free testing, including at-home tests, del Rio said Georgia health officials should work quickly to broaden testing options here. He said long lines are already forming and pharmacies are running short on rapid tests. Meanwhile, testing sites run by Fulton and DeKalb counties’ health departments will close Thursday and won’t reopen until Monday.

“Hunker down right now,” del Rio said. “I think this thing is going to go through us very, very quickly. It’s gonna infect a lot of people ... This is like a storm. Stay inside and try not to get wet.”

ExploreHoliday hours may limit COVID testing options in metro Atlanta

Officials with the Georgia Department of Public Health on Tuesday were focused on pushing a message of personal responsibility. “While people are tired of hearing it,” DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said in an email, “the tried and true measures for preventing the spread of COVID or flu or any respiratory infections work: wear a mask in indoor public settings, physically distance (six feet) in public or with people outside of your household, wash your hands frequently and stay home if you’re sick.”

Georgia has confirmed 25 cases of omicron so far, Nydam said, but this is only a sliver of the actual number of cases believed to be currently in the state. The overwhelming majority of positive COVID samples collected are not genetically sequenced — a time-consuming process that requires special equipment.

Audrey Arona, district health director of the Gwinnett, Newton, and Rockdale County Health Departments, said that new COVID-19 cases are up by 300 to 400 per day, double the level of cases the county saw in early December. Dr. Arona said her department has been spreading messages about mitigation measures through social media and media campaigns, at vaccination clinics and health centers, at mobile clinics set up in parks, and through faith leaders.

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A health care worker prepares a Pfizer booster shot at a Viral Solutions drive-up COVID vaccinations and testing site on North Druid Hills Road in Atlanta on Dec 16. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

A health care worker prepares a Pfizer booster shot at a Viral Solutions drive-up COVID vaccinations and testing site on North Druid Hills Road in Atlanta on Dec 16. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

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A health care worker prepares a Pfizer booster shot at a Viral Solutions drive-up COVID vaccinations and testing site on North Druid Hills Road in Atlanta on Dec 16. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

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

Even though a vaccine takes two weeks to give maximum protection — which would be well beyond New Year’s Day at this point — Arona said some protection is better than none.

“It’s not too late for Christmas,” she said. “Getting a vaccine the day before Christmas is still going to give you some protection.”

In DeKalb, new COVID-19 cases skyrocketed nearly 83% since the second half of November, according to a county report released Monday. Demand for COVID-19 testing appears to have jumped as well, said Eric Nickens, a spokesman for the DeKalb County health department. At opening recently, the line at its North DeKalb Health Center testing site snaked around the parking lot and out onto Clairmont Road, he said.

But as with the delta variant, which battered Georgia in late summer, DeKalb staffing will not increase with omicron. The department will continue to offer vaccines at its health centers and mobile vaccination sites, and testing at the North DeKalb Center on Clairmont Road and Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church on Glenwood Ave.

“Our strategy has not changed,” Nickens said. The department still advises residents to get their vaccines and booster shots, maintain social distancing and get tested before attending any gatherings.

Staff Writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.