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COVID-19 cases are rising again, but 'we’re all learning to live with it'
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Visitors to Medical Park 2 will immediately see a sign reminding them of the availability of walk-in vaccinations for COVUID-19. - photo by Scott Rogers

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are climbing, health officials say, though the current surge isn’t nearly as severe as the prior waves of the virus. 

Cases have been gradually increasing since mid-May. 

The Northeast Georgia Health System reported 67 COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Aug. 12. 

The all-time peak for hospitalizations was 355 in January 2021, followed by 333 in September 2021. 

As of Aug. 12, the positivity rate was 40%, “which is really high,” said Supriya Mannepalli, director of infectious diseases for the health system.

“There are a lot more cases than we are even confirming,” she said. It is estimated that the number of actual cases is about 7-10 times higher than the number of reported cases, she added. 

Many people are testing at home and neglecting to report positive tests to health authorities, she said, and illness also tends to be milder, meaning some people may mistake their symptoms for allergies and not even know they have COVID-19. 

Health officials are still urging people to get vaccinated. Those who are vaccinated are less likely to experience severe illness, Mannepalli said. Only 51% of people in Hall County are fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Public Health. 

Last week, the CDC relaxed its quarantine and social distancing guidelines. 

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Medical Park 2 practice manager Tina Plascencia places COVID-19 vaccines inside a medical grade refrigerator Monday, Aug. 15, 2022, to use when needed. - photo by Scott Rogers

The new guidelines come as CDC officials estimate that 95% of Americans 16 and older have acquired some level of immunity, either by being vaccinated or infected. 

People exposed to COVID-19 no longer need to isolate unless they test positive or experience symptoms, the new guidelines say. 

“The way I see the new guidelines are that we're all recognizing that we're in a very different phase now than we were even a year or two ago,” Mannepalli said. 

She credits vaccinations, boosters and oral antiviral medications for this more mild phase of the pandemic.

“All of these really change how we approach COVID-19,” she said. “We’re in a much stronger place today than we were earlier.” 

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COVID-19 vaccines inside a medical grade refrigerator Monday, Aug. 15, 2022, at Medical Park 2 in Gainesville where they accept walk-in COVID-19 vaccinations. - photo by Scott Rogers

The emergence of antiviral drugs such as Paxlovid “changes the game so much,” she said. “When you have oral options, you can intervene very, very quickly.” 

She said the health system is primarily recommending Paxlovid, which is “very effective,” with symptoms often improving or resolving within a couple days. Paxlovid is readily available at pharmacies, she added, after being in very short supply during the delta wave. 

The CDC also dropped a “test-to-stay” recommendation, which said students exposed to COVID-19 could regularly test — instead of quarantining at home — to keep attending school. With no quarantine recommendation anymore, the testing option disappeared too.

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Stickers are available for COVID-19 vaccine recipients Monday, Aug. 15, 2022, at Medical Park 2 in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

"This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives," senior CDC epidemiologist Greta Massetti said in a statement. 

Masks continue to be recommended only in areas where community transmission is deemed high, or if a person is considered at high risk of severe illness.

“What we are really encouraging people, is if they have any symptoms of the COVID-19 virus, it's important they get tested so they can isolate and not spread it to others,” Mannepalli said. “Because the COVID-19 virus is still the most predominant virus circulating in our community.” 

Many school districts across the U.S. scaled back their COVID-19 precautions before the start of the academic year. 

The Hall County School District has slightly changed its guidelines since last school year. 

If, after isolation, the COVID symptoms worsen, the individual must restart isolation at day zero, said Stan Lewis, a spokesman with Hall County Schools. 

The Gainesville school system has not updated guidelines since last school year, officials said Monday. In both school systems, masks and vaccinations are not required, and neither system will report cases unless infections start rising. 

“I hope so,” Mannepalli said when asked if COVID-19 may be going the way of the flu. 

The pandemic is not over, she noted, but “we’re all learning to live with it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.