Georgia shatters COVID-19 case record amid rapid surge
Georgia broke the state's record for the number of test-confirmed COVID-19 cases Tuesday, with an extremely rapid rise passing the peaks previously set in January.
The state recorded 13,670 positive tests, a combination of molecular PCR and rapid antigen tests, in its report released Tuesday. That boosted Georgia’s seven-day average of positive tests to 9,798. That seven-day average is a key measure because it smooths out normal daily variations.
That’s a huge escalation from a month ago, when Georgia was recording fewer than 1,000 positive tests a day. This fifth wave has passed both an early January peak as well as the delta wave that roared through Georgia as schools opened in August and September.
The rapid rise in cases has not yet resulted in hospitals being overrun, although the number of COVID-19 patients is climbing, rising about 10% Tuesday to nearly 2,200 statewide. Both infections and hospitalizations have been centered in the Atlanta area and some parts of north Georgia so far.
The climbing number of virus cases is forcing changes in plans. The city of Atlanta announced it was canceling the New Year's Eve Peach Drop at the Underground Atlanta complex downtown, the third year in a row that the event won't be held. Emory University said it will start its spring semester online, with in-person classes not starting until Jan. 31 at the earliest. And some public schools are saying students and employees must wear masks when their classes resume in early January, with the 1,100-student Dooly County district joining that group on Tuesday.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 25 Atlanta-area emergency rooms were turning away ambulances, while only six ERs at hospitals caring for adults were receiving them, according to state data. Among those turning away emergency medical transports were the flagship hospitals of three of the area’s four major hospital systems: Emory, Piedmont and Northside. Data showed emergency rooms in regions around Atlanta, Rome and Carrollton, Columbus and Augusta were exceeding 100% capacity.
Officials are urging people who need testing not to tie up emergency rooms but to instead seek out testing sites and pharmacies.
Katie Byrd, a spokesperson for Gov. Brian Kemp, said the state is working to increase testing capabilities and has 2,500 National Guard troops on standby who could be used to aid testing sites and hospitals. She said the state Department of Community Health would decide who to send where in coming days. She also said Kemp continues to communicate with hospital leaders and has five calls with hospitals planned Wednesday.
Byrd, though, reiterated that the Republican governor, who has joined a series of lawsuits against Biden administration vaccine mandates in recent weeks, won’t “be implementing any measures that shutter businesses or divide the vaccinated from the unvaccinated or the masked from the unmasked.”
“Gov. Kemp is fully vaccinated and boosted, and he will continue to urge Georgians to talk with their doctors about the benefits of getting the vaccine or receiving their booster shot,” Byrd said in a statement. “Ultimately, he feels that we must trust our citizens to do what’s right for themselves and their families.”
Emory President Gregory Fenves said Tuesday that Georgia's largest private university is switching to virtual classes to start the spring semester because of a national surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant. Fenves said Emory will transition back to in-person learning on Jan. 31 if conditions permit. The switch to remote learning applies to undergraduate, graduate and professional courses. Residence halls will remain open, though students are encouraged to delay their return to campus.
Fenves wrote in a letter that he knew that “beginning the semester with remote learning and teaching is inconvenient."
“But we must be adaptable during this surge so we can continue our important work — learning, teaching, creating, and discovering — in the face of this ever-evolving pandemic," Fenves wrote.
Emory students, faculty and staff are required to get a booster shot by Jan. 19.