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The COVID-19 positivity rate over the last two weeks in Hall County dropped to 5% over the weekend, according to the state health department. That’s a measure health experts say could signal a community’s start to a return to normalcy.
Northeast Georgia Health System leaders say residents must remain cautious as the community enters the home stretch.
The positivity rate is the total number of positive COVID-19 cases out of all COVID-19 tests. The World Health Organization advises that the positivity rate remain at 5% or lower for at least 14 days before reopening businesses and other activities.
As COVID-19 numbers have come down in Hall over the past several weeks, the county has begun lifting some restrictions set when infections were more widespread. For example, the Hall County Government Center and some other facilities reopened to the public without requirement for appointments as of March 1.
“We are continuing to see COVID-19 statistical data improve for the Hall County community,” Hall County Administrator Jock Connell said in a Feb. 25 release by Hall County. “As has been the case throughout the pandemic, we have carefully monitored that data and believe this is the right next step as we provide crucial services to our citizens.
However, although COVID-19 data and cases seem to be moving in the right direction, Supriya Mannepalli, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s medical director of infectious disease medicine, said the community should not get carried away with excitement.
“While we’re cautiously optimistic that it (the positivity rate) will continue to drop in the coming weeks, we know that we can’t let our guard down yet,” Mannepalli said.
Mannepalli said the county and state must continue to increase vaccinations, wear masks and social distance. She advised the local community to maintain COVID-19 precautions now and during upcoming spring vacations despite the decrease in the COVID-19 positivity rate.
“It’s also important to socialize outdoors now that the weather is getting warmer and remember all these tips when planning spring break entertainment or travel,” Mannepalli said.
The Centers for Disease Control released new guidelines Monday advising fully vaccinated Americans can gather with other vaccinated people indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing.
Officials say a person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the last required dose of vaccine. About 31 million Americans — or only about 9% of the U.S. population — have been fully vaccinated with a federally authorized COVID-19 vaccine so far, according to the CDC.
Hall County has administered 57,791 vaccines as of March 8, according to DPH. Out of those vaccinated, 32,460 have received the first dose and 25,331 have also received their second dose.
The recommendations also say that vaccinated people can come together in the same way — in a single household — with people considered at low-risk for severe disease, such as in the case of vaccinated grandparents visiting healthy children and grandchildren.
“With more and more people vaccinated each day, we are starting to turn a corner,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
During a press briefing Monday, she called the guidance a “first step” toward restoring normalcy in how people come together. She said more activities would be OK'd for vaccinated individuals once caseloads and deaths decline, more Americans are vaccinated, and as more science emerges on the ability of those who have been vaccinated to get and spread the virus.
As of Monday, eligibility for the vaccine in Georgia has been expanded to include pre-k through 12th grade educators and staff of public and private schools.
Hall County and Gainesville school districts have scheduled vaccine clinics for their staff.
Adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their caregivers, as well as parents of children with complex medical conditions, are also eligible as of Monday.
The District 2 Public Health department on Monday also announced new COVID-19 vaccination appointments are available due to recent vaccine shipments.
“Recent shipments have given us enough vaccines to open more appointments for residents,” said Alan Satterfield, director of nursing. “We hope that residents who are eligible to be vaccinated will take this opportunity to make an appointment.”
Appointments can be made at http://phdistrict2.org/.
At the Northeast Georgia Health System level, Mannepalli said they’re happy to have updated their visitation policy to allow more people to visit their loved ones. Although waiting rooms remain closed, two visitors are allowed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, as long as they are COVID-19 negative. Two visitors are also allowed for pediatric patients, mothers in labor and hospice patients.
The CDC is continuing to recommend that fully vaccinated people still wear well-fitted masks, avoid large gatherings, and physically distance themselves from others when out in public. The CDC also advised vaccinated people to get tested if they develop symptoms that could be related to COVID-19.
The CDC guidance did not speak to people who may have gained some level of immunity from being infected, and recovering from, the coronavirus. The CDC did not change its recommendations on travel, which discourages unnecessary travel and calls for getting tested within a few days of the trip.
Associated Press contributed.