Virus spread threatens Georgia hospitals; testing soars before Christmas

122320 Doraville: RN Elham Roshanraun (left) and other nurses work a line of motorists at a free drive through COVID-19 DeKalb Board of Health testing site located by the Brandsmart USA while coronavirus testing surges as Christmas nears on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Doraville.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
122320 Doraville: RN Elham Roshanraun (left) and other nurses work a line of motorists at a free drive through COVID-19 DeKalb Board of Health testing site located by the Brandsmart USA while coronavirus testing surges as Christmas nears on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Doraville. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Four-fifths of Georgia counties in the red zone, latest White House report says.

Georgia vaulted up the national rankings in new cases of the COVID-19, according to the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force report, as local, state and federal public health officials renewed warnings about holiday gatherings.

With coronavirus infections spiking across the Sunbelt, the task force warned that Georgia will soon see more fatalities as cases and hospitalizations climb.

“This surge must be met with aggressive public mitigation inclusive of safe public options, like outdoor dining,” said the most recent report, dated Sunday. “And clear personal behavior change messages to ensure as many Americans as possible can survive to be immunized and protected from severe disease and fatalities over the ensuing weeks.”

More than nine out of 10 Georgia counties have moderate to high rates of spread, and 83% of the state’s counties are in the red zone.

ExploreHow hospitals are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic

The task force said Georgia ranked 26th, or in the middle nationally, for new cases, and 18th for test positivity. Two weeks ago, Georgia ranked 47th — or fifth best out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. — for new cases. In last week’s report, the state ranked 41st in new cases.

Georgia’s worsening ranking appears to reflect not only a rise in infections but also the addition of cases detected by rapid antigen tests in Georgia’s tally. The recent inclusion of antigen cases provides a clearer picture of Georgia’s status as more states add these “probable” cases to their official counts. But it’s unclear how many states still do not report antigen cases.

Georgia also ranked as the 12th highest state for the rate of new hospital admissions for COVID-19 per 100 hospital beds.

Improvements in the Upper Midwest, Plains and Mountain West have been offset by worsening epidemics in the Sunbelt and along the coasts, the report said. “The surge is now in states home to more than 80% of the American population,” the task force said.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

The White House report said public health messaging should be: “To preserve our hospital system for you, we need you to wear masks, physically distance, wash hands, and avoid crowds and social gatherings beyond your immediate family.”

Seniors and people with pre-existing conditions should not be in public places unmasked and should have groceries and medicines delivered, the report said. People under 40 should assume they are infected if they gather with people outside the immediate household.

“Most likely, you will not have symptoms; however, you are dangerous to others and you must isolate away from anyone at increased risk for severe disease and get tested,” the report said.

122320 Doraville: RN Elham Roshanraun talks a motorist through how to perform a self swab at a free drive through COVID-19 DeKalb Board of Health testing site located by the Brandsmart USA on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Doraville.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
122320 Doraville: RN Elham Roshanraun talks a motorist through how to perform a self swab at a free drive through COVID-19 DeKalb Board of Health testing site located by the Brandsmart USA on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Doraville. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Kemp: ‘Stay vigilant’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) have urged people not to travel over the holidays or hold gatherings outside one’s immediate household.

The agencies made similar pleas before Thanksgiving to help avoid exacerbating a growing autumn wave. Though travel was down for what’s historically the busiest travel time of the year, many millions hit the roads and skies. In turn, Georgia and the rest of the nation saw the surge worsen.

On Wednesday, DPH reported 7,773 net new confirmed and probable cases of the virus. Of those, 5,153 were detected by molecular PCR tests and 2,620 were antigen positive cases. Wednesday’s report also included 51 net new confirmed deaths and five others deemed probable COVID-19 deaths.

State data show 3,756 were currently hospitalized for COVID-19 Wednesday afternoon, about triple the number of mid-October.

DPH also reported Wednesday that 26,010 vaccine doses had been administered statewide, an increase of more than 8,000 since Tuesday’s count.

Case reporting is likely to be bumpy over the next week or more as testing sites close or limit operations and labs operate under holiday hours. The full effect of holiday gatherings might not be known for weeks.

At a news conference this week at Emory University, Gov. Brian Kemp suggested virtual celebrations.

“I know that many Georgians are anxious to spend time with their loved ones, and believe you me, I am as well,” the governor said. “But we are also pleading with Georgians to do the right thing and stay vigilant. Do not let your guard down and choose to be part of the solution and not the problem.”

But messages have been undercut by actions of political figures and public health leaders.

Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the White House task force, reportedly traveled to a vacation home over Thanksgiving with family members who live outside her household. Amid a storm of criticism, Birx said would soon retire from government service.

Elected officials in other states also have been caught traveling or holding events contrary to local and state guidance or emergency orders. Kemp, for instance, attended a White House Christmas party last week.

And political rallies have been held all over Georgia for the candidates for the state’s two U.S. Senate seats ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff.

Public health experts outside Georgia government in recent weeks have called on Kemp to further reduce the state’s 50-person limit on gatherings, enact a mask mandate and restrict operations at bars, nightclubs and restaurants. So far, Kemp has refused to take such steps, instead stressing personal responsibility to follow the state’s guidance.

122320 Doraville: Motorists line up at a free drive through COVID-19 DeKalb Board of Health testing site located by the Brandsmart USA while coronavirus testing surges as Christmas nears on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Doraville.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
122320 Doraville: Motorists line up at a free drive through COVID-19 DeKalb Board of Health testing site located by the Brandsmart USA while coronavirus testing surges as Christmas nears on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Doraville. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

‘I’m sick of seeing people die’

For those holding in-person gatherings, and some 85 million Americans who are expected to travel over the holidays, the CDC recommends holding events outdoors and to avoid indoor areas with poor ventilation. The agency says attendees should wear masks, wash hands frequently and clean shared surfaces often. Guests should bring their own food and drinks.

The CDC also recommends people get tested ahead of the holidays, though the agency warned it “does not eliminate all risk.”

Georgia has reported a surge in test demand just as the state did before Thanksgiving. But the rolling average positivity rate for molecular PCR tests remains near 14% in recent days, a sign that Georgia’s surveillance network isn’t capturing the full extent of spread.

Dr. S. Elizabeth Ford, the director of the DeKalb County Board of Health, said testing demand in her county is at the highest point in the pandemic. Appointments are taken as soon as they’re offered.

“We are encouraging people if at all possible, to stay home,” Ford said. “I know people are sick and tired of Zoom calls, but I’m sick of seeing people die.”

Staff writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this report.

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