Georgia climbs to 4th nationally in COVID-19 hospitalizations, White House says

Rolling average of daily reported deaths reaches all-time high.
Dr. Kathleen Toomey (center), Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, makes remarks during a COVID-19 update press conference at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Dr. Kathleen Toomey (center), Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, makes remarks during a COVID-19 update press conference at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer /

Georgia reported the fourth worst rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions in the country last week, a federal report said, and the worst is likely still ahead for hospitals already overburdened by the fall and winter surge.

“Georgia is in full pandemic resurgence and will experience continued increases in new COVID (hospital) admissions and fatalities,” the White House Coronavirus Task Force said. The report, dated Sunday, was obtained Wednesday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The report comes as the number of people in Georgia currently hospitalized for the disease is at record highs, and as the feared but expected surge in deaths from the virus’s third wave appears to have arrived.

The state reported 5,721 patients currently hospitalized for COVID-19 in Georgia about 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday. COVID-19 patients make up more than a third of hospitalized persons in Georgia.

The surge in hospitalizations has taxed hospital staff and resources. Statewide, nine out of 10 ICU beds are full and nearly half of the patients in intensive care have COVID-19, according to state and federal hospital records.

Hospitals across the state have warned of overflowing critical care units and emergency rooms and fears of rationed care. Wednesday brought an alarming call from the CEO of the state’s largest hospital.

John Haupert, the CEO of Grady Health System, which operates Grady Memorial Hospital, wrote in a community briefing that the safety-net hospital is full, treating more coronavirus patients than ever before over the past two weeks.

“If admissions continue to climb, I worry we will face what hospitals in other states grapple with — tough choices on providing care,” Haupert said.

The state’s COVID-19 field hospital at Georgia World Congress Center, which Grady helps run, has 42 patients, out of 60 staffed beds, Haupert said in the memo.

‘Continued deterioration’

On Wednesday, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) reported 8,596 net new confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19. The seven-day rolling average of new confirmed and suspected cases sits at about 9,800, more than triple what it was Dec. 1.

The surge in deaths expected since cases started climbing in October might well have arrived. Georgia reported 136 net new confirmed coronavirus deaths on Wednesday and another five deemed “probable” for COVID-19. It was the second worst confirmed death figure reported in a day since the start of the pandemic, following the 145 net new confirmed deaths reported Tuesday.

Many of these fatalities occurred days or even a few weeks earlier, as it takes time for the state to report confirmed deaths.

The rolling average of newly reported confirmed deaths now stands at 78, the highest point in the pandemic.

The White House task force report noted “significant, continued deterioration” from California, across the Sunbelt and Southeast and up the Atlantic coast. The U.S. is seeing spread occur at about twice the rate of the spring and summer waves, the task force report said, requiring beefed up mitigation, testing and vaccination.

“This acceleration and the epidemiologic data suggest the possibility that some strains of the US COVID-19 virus may have evolved into a more transmissible virus,” the report said.

Last week, DPH reported the state’s first confirmed case of the U.K. strain of the virus. The strain is not believed to be more deadly or cause worse disease in an infected person, but it is is believed to be far more transmissible than the common strain.

If the U.K. strain, or other more virulent strains, become more common, it could send more sick people to hospitals, and worsen an already perilous situation.

Screening for different strains remains limited nationwide and in Georgia.

The task force warned, as it has for months, that Georgia needs to step up mitigation efforts, including masking, “strict physical distancing” and expansion of testing and vaccinations.

Gov. Brian Kemp has repeatedly urged Georgians to mask up, limit gatherings and follow other public health guidelines. But he has refused to enact any new restrictions on business and gatherings, insisting it is up to Georgians to ask responsibly.

“It’s going to be a really hard beginning of the year if we don’t buckle down,” said Jodie Guest, a professor and vice chair of epidemiology at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. “We have got to both control the spread while we rapidly vaccinate.”

Vaccinations remain priority

Georgia ranked 16th for the rate of new cases in the week ended Friday, an improvement from ninth the week before. Georgia reported case growth week-over-week, despite the improved national case ranking.

The White House report said 152 of Georgia’s 159 counties are now in the red zone for high rates of transmission.

The task force urged states not to delay vaccinations of people 65 and older and other populations vulnerable for severe disease.

“No vaccines should be in freezers but should instead be put in arms now,” the report said. “Active and aggressive immunization in the face of this surge would save lives.”

Georgia ranks near the bottom of all states in the rate of immunizations, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. State leaders have said data reporting issues make Georgia’s record appear worse, significantly undercounting doses administered to date.

Vaccine supplies have been allocated on a per capita basis. But under a new allocation plan announced Tuesday, the federal government will reward states that have the best rates of vaccination beginning in two weeks.