The Northeast Georgia Health System is sponsoring coverage directly related to public safety so that it can be made available free to non-subscribers as a public service. News coverage is independently reported. We know that you need accurate and up-to-date information about the effects of the coronavirus in the state and our region. Please consider supporting our work by subscribing to The Times.
Officials from Northeast Georgia Medical System, Gainesville and Hall County School districts, Longstreet Clinic and others relayed the latest on COVID-19 and what you should know to stay safe and stay informed during a webinar Thursday, Aug. 5.
Here are four takeaways from the hour-long session, hosted by the Greater Hall County Chamber of Commerce.
'We have not yet peaked'
The current wave of COVID-19 infections is still rising, said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, Northeast Georgia Physicians Group infectious disease specialist.
Models indicate that this wave will peak some time in early to mid-September, Mannepalli said, and it could be an even higher peak than the previous highest peak in January 2021, because of the higher transmissibility of the COVID-19 delta variant.
On Jan. 8, NGHS had 355 COVID-19 positive patients in its care, its highest mark during the pandemic. As of Aug. 5, NGHS data show there were 133 COVID-19 positive patients in NGHS care, and 82% of those patients were unvaccinated. The average patient age is 59.
The Gainesville campus Intensive Care Unit had more patients today than it has had since January, said Dr. John Delzell, Northeast Georgia Medical Center vice president and incident commander.
Someone with the earlier COVID-19 variant may infect two to three people, but someone with the delta variant could infect eight to nine people, or possibly more in a crowded setting, Mannepalli said. The delta variant is more likely to cause more severe disease as well, she said, including increased likelihood for serious illness with younger people. Serious illness is still rare among children, she said.
“COVID-19 is a preventable infection,” Mannepalli said, urging people to get vaccinated if they have not yet done so.
Mannepalli and District 2 Public Health Director Dr. Zachary Taylor stressed that getting seriously ill from COVID-19 after vaccination is rare. Taylor said vaccinated people should still wear a mask indoors and in public, because the delta variant is more transmissible, and a vaccinated person could give COVID-19 to someone who is unvaccinated and more susceptible to serious illness.
“We ran into a buzzsaw and it’s called the delta variant,” Taylor said. “COVID-19 is a disease of the unvaccinated.”
Increase in younger people getting vaccinated
This week, Longstreet Clinic is on track to give out more than 50% more vaccines than the previous week, Chief Operations Officer Loren Funk said. During the week of July 18-24 the clinic gave out 254 vaccines, then 258 July 25-31, and this week is expecting to give out close to 400 based on the number of appointments that are set and walk-ins who could come in, Funk said. More than 40% of vaccines administered in June and July were for those aged 12-18, Funk said, showing that more young people are getting shots.
The clinic tries to have all three vaccines available, Funk said, especially the Pfizer vaccine because it is the only vaccine currently approved for those 12-18.
Walk-in vaccine appointments are available at the Gainesville Longstreet Clinic campus every day: 8:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to noon Saturday and Sunday. The Family Medicine Oakwood campus has vaccines available 8:30 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Employers who wish to set up a vaccination clinic at their facility with help from Longstreet Clinic can call the clinic to set up an appointment, Funk said.
More trust in primary health care providers for vaccine administration
Some people in the area who have waited to get vaccinated report they were more willing to get the shot after talking with their primary health care provider, said Bobby Norris, vice president of operations for Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.
“We’re asking all our primary care locations, family medicine and internal medicine, to have the vaccine on site as well, so that if any patient is interested, they can get the vaccine at the time of their visit,” Norris said. “We’re finding that if a provider will have the conversation with a patient, that’s all it takes sometimes to convince the patient that it is the right choice for them.”
NGPG is still doing testing at all urgent care locations from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and, Norris said, their testing volume has increased in the past two weeks. People can get their COVID-19 test results in 30-45 minutes with their rapid PCR tests, Norris said.
School districts report few cases among employees ahead of new school year
Hall County and Gainesville school districts stood firm on their masking guidelines as the new school year is about to begin.
Neither school district will require masks for students or staff this school year, and both Gainesville Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams and Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield reiterated their policies during the webinar. Schofield in particular cited mental health concerns among students as a big reason to make masks optional.
As of Aug. 5, with school starting Aug. 6, Hall County Schools only has seven COVID-19 cases out of 3,400 employees, Schofield said, and one of those people is not in the country currently. Gainesville Schools had two employees who were either COVID-19 positive or recently exposed to COVID-19 as of Monday, Aug. 2. Gainesville’s school year begins with a staggered start on Aug. 11.
For more information on COVID-19 in Hall County, visit gainesvilletimes.com/coronavirus.