For The Record

Public health official urges vigilance as delta wave shows signs of easing

By: - September 14, 2021 8:42 pm

Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey tearfully recounted the harassment public health workers have faced in person and over social media during a virtual board meeting held Tuesday. Georgia is in the middle of a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder (file photo)

A top state public health official says the fourth wave of the pandemic – brought on by the more easily transmissible delta variant – may have already peaked in Georgia.

But state epidemiologist Dr. Cherie Drenzek said Tuesday it’s too soon to know for sure whether the recent decline represents the start of a lasting downward slide in cases.

“We’re very much at peak levels, even though we’re starting to go down,” Drenzek said. “So I always caution that even though we may be starting to see the beginnings of some decline, look at these high levels where we’re starting from.

“It’s certainly still very indicative of a lot of strain in the hospital system, a lot of strain in the school system, and plenty of risk of transmission in communities as well.”

The delta variant has overwhelmed the state’s health care system, putting the highest number of COVID-19 patients in hospital beds since the pandemic reached Georgia early last year. Hospitalizations for the disease have started to slow in recent days.

It’s also brought a spike in cases among school-aged children as they returned to campus. More than half of the recent outbreaks have occurred in k-12 schools, and positive results among children represent more than a quarter of the state’s cases, with increases most notable among middle school and high school kids. The COVID-19 vaccine is only currently  approved for children older than 12.

“I think that really the magnitude of the number of cases here in this age group and among schoolchildren is very significant, and the result of having all those cases in school-aged children is having many, many outbreaks in k-12 schools,” Drenzek said.

Drenzek presented this snapshot of the pandemic at a state Board of Health meeting Tuesday, which was the panel’s first regular meeting in more than a year and half.

There was plenty to catch up on. Agency officials outlined their efforts to defeat the virus, including recent efforts to get more shots into arms. About 53% of Georgians have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

President Joe Biden issued an expansive vaccine mandate last week that requires companies with more than 100 employees to push the vaccine or regular testing. Gov. Brian Kemp is one of the GOP governors who have vowed to fight the president’s mandate.

School and colleges campuses are another major battleground right now over how best to snuff out the coronavirus. Protests are planned on higher-ed campuses across the state this week as faculty and students push for more aggressive measures, like mask mandates – something the Board of Regents and the governor forbid.

The meeting, held virtually, was also at times emotional. Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey tearfully recounted the harassment public health workers have faced in person and over social media. Anti-vaccine activists succeeded in shutting down a mobile vaccination event in north Georgia.

“Public health workers are exhausted, just like hospital and other health care workers but I just don’t think public health is visible to the public or even policymakers, and often because we’re doing things that aren’t necessarily valued, like telling people to be quarantined or telling people to be isolated or telling people to wear a mask,” she said.

“We’re not only not valued, we’re ridiculed. We’re lambasted in social media, or as happened at several of our testing sites, booed and jeered to the point that our vaccination sites had to close.

Toomey pointed to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found more than half of the public health workforce reported increases in mental health conditions.

“To me, it’s a tragedy at a time that we need to recruit new people to public health, that this is the kind of reception they’re getting,” she said. “We have to be better, Georgia.  We have to be better here in this country.”

The board’s chairman, Dr. James Curran, also bemoaned the politicization of the virus and accused some national politicians of being more focused on reelection than protecting public health.

“I just don’t understand why everybody in the country is not running off to get vaccinated. I guess I’m just naïve,” Curran said.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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