With the most vulnerable of the nation’s population to COVID-19 getting vaccinated early this year and the variety of vaccines becoming available to all adults a few months later, most saw a light at the end of the tunnel for the coronavirus pandemic. As the number of people being vaccinated rose, positive cases of the virus began to drop as well as hospitalizations for those afflicted and also the number of deaths attributed to the illness. The positive trend of the spring continued into the early summer. That is until recently when a variant strain of COVID-19 — the Delta — started making its way around the country. Suddenly, that light at the end of the tunnel from a few months ago may be just another oncoming virus train. Positive cases of the virus along with hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise again, albeit not a near the level as before vaccinations were available, but they are rising in nearly every state. And almost all of the increases in each category — as much as 99 percent — are among people who haven’t been vaccinated. Georgia is among the states that’s part of the disturbing trend and the immediate local area of Ware, Pierce and Brantley counties is contributing. For example, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported a total of 2,568 positive cases, 134 hospitalizations and 13 deaths as a result of the coronavirus on Friday, July 30, over the previous day. Two weeks earlier those day-over-day figures were 855, 63 and 16, and a month ago they were 440, 49 and 14. Locally, Ware County reported on Friday, July 30 a total of 82 cases for the previous 10 days. Pierce logged 133 and Brantley 61. Those numbers were 35, 35 and 32, respectively for the counties over the preceding 10 days. Ware County’s total of 16 reported cases on Tuesday, July 27, was its highest one-day total since 17 were reported on January 30. Pierce’s 20 cases on July 27 and July 29 were its high since 32 on January 23. Brantley’s 13 cases on July 29 were the most since it had 17 on January 21. Each of the three counties has seen its rolling two-week number of cases per 100,000 population rise more than 10-fold in the past couple of weeks. And like other hospitals around the state, Memorial Satilla Health Waycross has seen its patient census for COVID-19 treatment rise recently. Bobby McCullough, Chief Executive Officer of Memorial Satilla Health, said Friday the hospital had 12 positive patients, two more than the previous day and seven more than at the same time a week ago. He said four of the current patients were at the critical care level and all the admissions came following visits to the emergency room. None of the patients the hospital admitted had received a vaccination. That’s reflective statewide where 99.4 percent of all Georgians hospitalized in this recent surge were either not vaccinated or had not been fully protected. For deaths, it’s even greater: 99.8 percent died unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. “We’re not where we’ve been in previous months in terms of level of COVID in the community so that’s promising, but there has been an increase recently,” McCullough said. The administrator also said the average age of those being treated recently is younger — “average age under 60” — than those the facility saw at the height of the pandemic. That is in keeping with the properties of the delta strain, which is more transmissible and is virulent among young and old alike. McCullough said the hospital also has experienced an increase in people with a positive test with primary care physician, who’s referred them to the hospital for a monoclonal antibody treatment. The infusion, McCullough said, is aimed at limiting the need for hospitalization among positive patients. “We’ve seen a pretty significant increase in referrals for that the past couple of weeks,” he said. “It’s designed to keep you out of hospital.” The administrator also said Memorial Satilla has been able to send some positive patients home for self-quarantine during this recent rise in cases. Those people have had no comorbidity issues that the virus would exasperate to the point being in the hospital likely would be necessary. According to medical experts, the local area is surrounded by coronavirus “danger zones” with one — Charlton County — the worst in the country. In a study of data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention from July on the Delta variant, which now makes up 83 percent of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. by national health nonprofit Surgo Ventures, Charlton was first on its list of the 20 most hard-hit counties in the country in terms of new cases. With only 14.5 percent of its population vaccinated, Charlton had and average of 62 cases of COVID-19 per 100k population last week. Charlton County has only 14.5% of the population is vaccinated. The county had an average of 62 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 as of last week. Bacon County, which is contiguous with Ware County, was 20th. All total, Georgia had seven of the top 20 counties on the Surgo list. “We believe these 20 counties are Delta danger zones, which means they represent the strongest convergence of COVID-19 vulnerability, underlying community barriers to vaccine uptake, and low vaccination rates of all counties in the United States at this point in time,” said Dr. Sema Sgaier, Co-Founder and CEO of Surgo Ventures and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in releasing the study. The other states with counties that made the “danger zone” list are in Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas and South Dakota. As of last week, about 4.16 million of the Georgia’s estimated 10.62 million residents — or about 39.8 percent — had been vaccinated, according to data provided by the GDPH. None of either Brantley, Pierce or Ware had a percentage close to the state average for their respective populations. Brantley was 17.8 percent (3,314/18,561), Pierce was 24.7 percent (4,737/19,164) and Ware was 28.1 percent (10,004/35,599). CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said case spikes were being driven by the people who decline to be vaccinated against the viral infection. “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” she said at a White House COVID-19 Response news briefing in the middle of last month when the uptick in cases began. “We’re seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk and communities that are fully vaccinated are generally faring well.” The CDC has issued recommendations for the return of masks indoors, even for those who’ve been vaccinated because they can spread the infection. A handful of cities in Georgia — Savannah and Atlanta among them — already have restored mask mandates they initiated last year. During the planning and information session of the Waycross City Commission on July 19, Commissioner Marian Solomon-Gaines said it may be time to discuss a contingency plan for a response by the city if the number of cases continue to rise in the coming weeks. The city last year mandated masks in all city buildings and closed City Hall to the public for a period of time unless people had a pre-arranged appointment. Gov. Brian Kemp said last week he wouldn’t issue any order for masks or lockdowns, but urged Georgians to get vaccinated. “I encourage all Georgians who have concerns or questions to talk to a medical provider and get vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said Kemp, who along with one of his daughters received a vaccination March 26 during an appearance in Waycross touting one of the state’s mass vaccination sites. McCullough echoed that sentiment. He said there’s plenty of data available where everybody could find a way to get comfortable with receiving the vaccine if they’re now hesitant for some reason. He even advised people who’ve previously tested positive for COVID-19 and thus may have developed antibodies to still vaccinate. The administrator offered a scenario involving his facility’s medical staff as reason enough to take the vaccine. “When we received (vaccine) in December, our doctors were at the front of the line for it,” McCullough said. “I think that’s plenty of reinforcement to the fact that it’s safe.”
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