As the winter holidays approach and a new COVID-19 variant has emerged, local health officials still say the best defense against serious illness is getting vaccinated, and Hall County still lags behind the state’s vaccination rate.
“Given that the vaccination rates are low, we are concerned about if it will surge again especially now with the new variant (omicron),”said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, director of infectious disease medicine at Northeast Georgia Health System.
Only 45% of people in Hall County are fully vaccinated, as of Monday, Nov. 29,while 51% of the state’s population is vaccinated.
Winter tends to be a time of higher transmission for COVID-19 and other viruses, because people are indoors more often, traveling more and gathering in large groups for the holidays, Mannepalli said.
The health system didn’t have precise projections for a potential surge this winter, she said.
Last January, the health system experienced its highest peak with 355 COVID-19 positive patients in care at one time. September’s delta variant surge was once projected to beat the January peak, but it never crested quite as high.
On Sept. 3, there were 317 COVID-19 positive patients in the health system. As of Monday, Nov. 29, there are 52 such patients, and that number has stayed fairly level since the start of the month.
COVID-19 testing sites
Location: 601 South Enota Drive, Gainesville, GA 30501
Hours: 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Monday - Friday
Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton
Location: 1515 River Place, Braselton, GA 30517
Hours: 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday - Friday
“We’re watching our positivity rates; we’re watching our hospitalizations,” Mannepalli said. “We’re watching very closely to see what happens and not just here in Hall County but in hospitals across the metro Atlanta area. … I really hope we can really get our vaccination rates high and follow these other preventive measures for masking, social distancing and hygiene so that we don’t see another surge to the extent that we have seen before.”
The Georgia Department of Public Health wrote in a press release Monday, Nov. 29, it is closely monitoring the emergence of the omicron variant, first detected in southern Africa. The variant has not been detected yet in Georgia, according to the statement. Scientists are studying the variant to determine how quickly and easily it spreads, whether it causes more severe illness and how well the current COVID-19 vaccines will protect against it, according to the statement.
“What is known is that COVID vaccination helps stop transmission of infection which prevents new variants from emerging,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of DPH. “Vaccination is more important than ever with the emergence of this new variant and the holidays just around the corner.”
Omicron was designated as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Friday, Nov. 26.
“We have to stay cautiously optimistic,” Mannepalli said. “I hope it’s not here yet but we’ll have to wait and see what we find from (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and (DPH) in the coming days.”
The omicron variant can be detected with PCR tests.
On Monday, the CDC updated its booster shot recommendations to say that all adults age 18 and up should get a booster six months after the completion of their first series of shots for mRNA vaccines and two months after receiving the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Previously the CDC stated that those 18 and up may get a booster after consultation with their primary care physician, and only recommended the shot for certain populations with higher risk of severe illness and those 65 and older.
People also may get a different booster shot from their original series, meaning if someone first received Moderna, they could get a booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine.