Georgia reports jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations after the holidays

A new variant is reported to be spreading rapidly, but not causing any more severe illness.

The number of new COVID-19 hospitalizations in Georgia is surging after the holidays, reaching levels not seen in nearly a year. The state also recorded the highest percentage jump in hospitalizations in the nation.

Georgia reported a 73% increase in new COVID hospitalizations for the week ending Dec. 30 — a far higher jump than the 20% increase nationally for the same week. Georgia’s hospitalizations rose from 538 the previous week to 933, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than half those hospitalized were 60 or older.

So far, this latest COVID rise seems less deadly than last year’s and much less than the spike in early 2022 when the omicron variant first appeared.

At the same time, other nasty bugs are circulating. Flu cases are widespread and soaring around the state.

“We are certainly seeing a spike in our numbers,” said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an epidemiologist at Emory Clinic about the rise in both flu and COVID cases. “We just need to see what happens, whether this calms down as we get farther from the travel people did over the past couple of weeks. Whether we are at a peak or whether we are going to see this perpetuated, I think this will depend on the safety precautions people take.”

Older adults and those with weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable to severe illness and complications from COVID. In Georgia, 70% of new COVID hospitalizations during the week that ended Dec. 30 were in those 60 and older.

The COVID virus is constantly changing and a new variant has been spreading rapidly around the nation. The variant, known as JN.1, is a descendent of omicron. It now represents 62% of COVID cases in the U.S. according to the most recent surveillance from the CDC. It makes up about the same share in the eight-state Southeastern region that includes Georgia.

According to the CDC. the continued growth of JN.1 suggests the variant is either more transmissible or better at evading our immune systems. However, there is no evidence JN.1 causes more severe illness. Early lab data indicates that the updated vaccines are still effective against it and continuing to provide protection against severe illnesses. The CDC also said they expect the antiviral Paxlovid to continue to be effective against this variant.

Compared to the first two winters of the pandemic, the state and nation are in a much better place. Fewer people are dying or becoming seriously ill because vaccines and prior infections have bolstered immunity and reduced the severity of illnesses. At least 96% of adults in the U.S. have either been infected by COVID, providing natural immunity, or have been vaccinated. Many fall into both categories.

Omicron variants also don’t seem to invade the lungs as much as other coronavirus variants.

Among his patients, Dr. Andrew Reisman, a Gainesville doctor and former president of the Medical Association of Georgia, sees far fewer patients seriously sick compared to the earlier days of the pandemic. In a text, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that encouraging early testing and access to medications to help treat COVID is going a long way in helping his patients “tolerate it better.”

But COVID remains a threat, especially for those who are older and immunocompromised. Immunity wanes over time. Anyone infected can suffer from long COVID, with sometimes debilitating symptoms that linger for weeks, months or even longer.

The latest preliminary data on weekly COVID deaths in Georgia show 12 COVID deaths for the week ending Dec. 30. Data from early December, which is considered more reliable, shows around 20 COVID deaths a week in Georgia.

Physicians continue to urge everyone, including those not at high risk of severe illness, to get vaccines against COVID and the flu, and to stay home if they become ill.

Sexton said it is “certainly reasonable” for anyone to consider wearing a mask in public during this wave of illness, and she would “strongly recommend” masking for those who are high risk, or have someone in their household who is.