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‘2020 on steroids’: How worried should you be about the delta surge in COVID cases?
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center Director of Pharmacy Melissa Frank opens an ultra-low temperature freezer Thursday, July 22, 2021, where the hospital keeps a supply of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines. - photo by Scott Rogers

This article has been updated to reflect the death of Bryant Roland, who was comatose and breathing through a ventilator when this article was originally published.

Coronavirus cases are on the rise all across the United States, and Hall County is no exception. 

One of those cases has hit particularly close to home and sent a shockwave through the community. In mid-July, 49-year-old Bryant Roland, the son-in-law of Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan, was hospitalized with a severe case of COVID-19. His condition deteriorated rapidly, and he was comatose and breathing through a ventilator. Roland died late Wednesday night, July 28, after 14 days in the Intensive Care Unit at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, his wife Mary-Rollins Roland wrote on Facebook. 

Mary-Rollins Roland, daughter of Mayor Dunagan and a longtime Hall County school teacher, had been posting regular Facebook updates on her husband’s condition and received an outpouring of support.

Her husband was not vaccinated.

She was initially cautious about the vaccine and got it only “reluctantly,” she said in a recent phone interview before her husband's death. But after witnessing firsthand the ravages of the virus, she is grateful to have gotten the jab and has a clear message for anyone who has not: “Go get the vaccine.”

“I want people to be vigilant in protecting themselves and their loved ones against this nasty, horrible disease,” she said, “because I don't care what you read on the Internet, on Facebook, on other people’s – there's no way to fully describe the horror of what he has been through.”

Hall County’s positivity rate has risen dramatically in past weeks.

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Northeast Georgia Medical Center Director of Pharmacy Melissa Frank removes a box of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines Thursday, July 22, 2021, from a ultra low temperature freezer. - photo by Scott Rogers

 “Back in June, our rate of positivity was less than 1%,” said Dr. Zachary Taylor, district 2 medical director for the Georgia Department of Public Health. Now the rate is 5.8%, he said.

“So we've had a fairly significant increase in the percentage of our testing that is positive,” he said. “It is worrying to me and it should be to everyone because it just shows that we're having an increased level of transmission within the community itself.”

The vast majority of new cases across the country – some 83%, according to the CDC – are caused by the delta variant and tend to afflict those who have not been vaccinated. The director of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, warned last Friday that “this is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

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A new case of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines from the deep freezer at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

Only 35% of Hall County residents have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health, and only 39% have received at least one dose.

The ultra-contagious delta variant combined with low vaccination rates create a coronavirus cocktail that has many health officials worried.

“This is very concerning,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, director of infectious disease for Northeast Georgia Health System, who did not mince words in warning that the stage has been set for “2020 on steroids.”

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J&J COVID-19 vaccine inside a refrigerator at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center pharmacy. - photo by Scott Rogers

When asked how people can best protect themselves and their loved ones, she echoed Roland’s message.

“The most powerful tool in our hands is the vaccination,” she said. “And the most important way they can protect themselves and their families is by getting vaccinated.”

For children under 12 who cannot yet get the vaccination, Mannepalli said the most important step parents can take is getting vaccinated themselves.

“Almost all deaths from COVID-19 now are preventable,” she said. “COVID-19 is a preventable illness. She added that vaccines are remarkably effective not only in preventing infection but in limiting the severity of illness.

Hall County ranks fifth among all Georgia counties for the number of total coronavirus cases and deaths – 25,787 and 474, respectively – since the start of the pandemic, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. 

Roland hopes that her husband’s case will help drive Hall County out of those rankings.

“If anything comes of this, it is that I hope that we save a life – just one – of somebody who was on the fence about going to get the vaccine and decided to do it because of Bryant’s story.”