The Georgia Department of Public Health is urging residents to avoid gatherings this New Year's holiday and to get tested for COVID-19 before attending any events if avoiding them is not possible.
Spokesperson Logan Boss of the 10-county Northwest Georgia Health District, said testing before going out to celebrate the holiday is vital, even as a shortage of rapid tests in North Georgia may make doing so more difficult. Omicron, the latest variant of COVID-19, seems to be less deadly than the delta variant but is "much more transmissible," he said.
"If you look at case numbers right now, you can see how transmissible omicron is. We are advising caution over New Year's because of that. People really need to assess their own risk before going out to an event. If you're fully vaccinated and boosted, that risk may be less, but there is still risk," Boss said. "On top of that, while the risk to you might be lower, there is still a risk for others. People have to consider what they might pass along to someone whose risk might be higher. If you have a family member who isn't vaccinated or who may have a weaker immune system, what is the risk to that person? We have to think about that."
In North Georgia, most people are in that higher risk category. In Catoosa County, 37% of residents are fully vaccinated, and in Walker County, 32% of residents fall into that category. In more rural areas, the numbers can be lower, as in Dade County, where 31% of residents are fully vaccinated.
Of those, fewer have received booster shots. Boss said that doesn't seem to be changing.
"We have seen an increased demand for tests and at all of our free testing sites, but ironically, that's not translating into an increase in demand for immunizations," he said. "People are concerned because they are having trouble getting home rapid tests. There is a shortage of those, primarily in larger cities. People want to know what they should do if they can't get them and can't get tested. My advice is to stay home."
Residents in North Georgia seeking free COVID-19 testing can register for appointments at the following locations:
— The Colonnade, located at 264 Catoosa Circle in Ringgold, Georgia, every Monday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
— The Murray County Recreation Department, located at 651 Hyden Tyler Road in Chatsworth, Georgia, on Mondays from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m.
— Pleasant Grove Park, located at 1732 Pleasant Grove Drive in Dalton, Georgia, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
North Georgia residents willing to pay for testing can register for appointments at the following locations:
— CVS Pharmacy Clinic, located at 807 N. Main St. in Lafayette, Georgia, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
— CVS Pharmacy Clinic, located at 5431 Highway 136 in Trenton, Georgia, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
— Physicians Care Urgent Care Clinic, located at 400 Battlefield Parkway in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
— American Family Care Urgent Care Clinic, located at 26 Parkway Drive in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
A full list of commercial testing sites is available online at dph.georgia.gov/castlight-location-finder. Contact the sites directly to find out more about cost and restrictions.
Those who cannot find rapid tests available in stores and cannot get an appointment at a free clinic should not visit a local hospital to seek out testing either. Earlier this week, the Georgia Department of Public Health sent out a news release asking that Georgians avoid visiting emergency rooms unless they are experiencing an actual medical emergency or extreme COVID-19 symptoms. Even those with more minor symptoms should try to isolate at home before seeking out medical treatment, Boss told the Times Free Press during a phone call on Thursday.
"If you start to have symptoms and test positive or believe you might be positive for COVID, you need to isolate yourself immediately for at least five days," he said. "Come out of that and try to find a test again when you are no longer symptomatic and no longer have a fever. Do not just go out to stores in search of one."
Free COVID-19 testing locations are available statewide. Specific sites can be located online at dph.georgia.gov/covidtesting.
In Catoosa County, free testing is available every Monday and Wednesday at The Colonnade, 264 Catoosa Circle in Ringgold. On Mondays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m, Georgians can also visit the Murray County Recreation Department, 651 Hyden Tyler Road in Chatsworth, for free testing.
Free tests are available Monday through Friday in Whitfield County at Pleasant Grove Park, 1732 Pleasant Grove Drive in Dalton.
The Georgia Department of Public Health website also provides a searchable list of commercial COVID-19 testing sites. These are "not endorsed, vetted or managed by [the Department of Public Health]," according to the site, and may cost money. For those who cannot get free testing, these options may be useful, Boss said.
"Sometimes people may assume they have a cold and that may not be the case," Boss said. "The symptoms most people with this variant are reporting are very similar to those of a common cold. You may have a headache and the sniffles or a mild body ache. These are all symptoms of COVID-19. Don't just assume you have a cold. Get tested."
Lines at these free testing sites are likely long due to increased demand, and prior registration is usually required. To register, visit dph.georgia.gov/covidtesting.
Georgia Department of Public Health Communications Director Nancy Nydam earlier this week said registration was vital to ensure delays are as minimal as possible.
"We are working with our lab partners to expand testing hours and add testing sites, however, lines will continue to be long as thousands of Georgians want to get tested," Nydam said. "To help alleviate delays at testing sites, it is critical that people register before going to a [Department of Public Health] test site."
Both Boss and Nydam also urged residents who have not yet been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible.
To find a COVID-19 vaccination location, visit dph.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine.
All Georgia residents over the age of 5 are eligible for vaccination. Georgians older than 16 are eligible for boosters six months after completing their primary vaccine series of either Moderna or Pfizer, or two months after their Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for booster doses in 16- and 17-year-olds.
Contact Kelcey Caulder at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.