In a familiar cycle, just as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the area have declined to single digits, experts warn of an oncoming variant that could be even more contagious than omicron.
As of Tuesday, March 22, there were nine COVID-19 cases in the Northeast Georgia Health System and only the Gainesville campus had COVID positive patients. There have been 50 cases or fewer in the health system since March 2, but Dr. John Delzell, vice president of medical education for the health system, said he’s still wary of saying omicron in January was the last big surge.
“I’m a bit of a pessimist on this,” Delzell said. “I’m hoping we don’t (see another large wave). I’d like us to just get back to taking care of heart disease and cancer and all of those things, but I worry that this wasn’t the last.”
According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, about 35% of new COVID-19 cases are from the omicron sub-variant, BA.2, but cases around the country have been declining over the last two months. Masking and other guidelines have largely been relaxed. The CDC’s latest guidance shows that most areas of the country have low COVID-19 levels, meaning people can go without masks indoors — though masks are still required at most airports, hospitals and some other public settings.
The health system has relaxed some COVID-19 guidelines in the last two weeks, allowing visitors more access to loved ones and opening up waiting rooms as long as visitors wear masks and practice social distancing. It never had to shut down surgical operations, Delzell said, and spaces previously converted into patient rooms are now going back to normal use. Large rooms that used to contain multiple beds during surges are back to private rooms, and beds converted to intensive care unit beds are back to regular beds, he said.
“I think if you come into the hospital and you don’t have COVID, you don’t really notice that there’s anything going on,” Delzell said.
The wave in January produced a single-day peak of 341 cases on Jan. 17, higher than any day during the delta variant wave last August and September. But the delta variant wave was more severe in terms of how sick patients were, Delzell said. Early signs of the new variant indicate it may be more contagious but not as life-threatening.
Vaccines are still expected to be effective in preventing hospitalization and death against the new variant, Delzell said.
Spring break for local school districts is April 4-8, meaning increased travel, and Delzell said people should remain cautious, particularly if flying on an airplane, which can still be a high-risk situation. He recommended checking the CDC for COVID travel information.
“There’s always new variants,” Delzell said. “This is a virus that will likely never go away. … We see a new variant of the flu every fall and in the spring in the southern hemisphere. That’s kind of what viruses do. They mutate and evolve and sometimes they mutate in a way that makes them drastically worse and sometimes just a little worse, and you don’t really know until they do it.”