Public health leaders in Georgia are preparing for a possible surge in the number of COVID-19 cases following the holidays and are encouraging residents to get vaccinated or get the booster shot if eligible.
Logan Boss of the Georgia Department of Public Health's Northwest Health District told the Times Free Press on Thursday that the department is anticipating a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases across the region this holiday season.
Like last year, health officials believe families and friends gathering in person in large groups may increase the rate of spread in local communities, thereby leading to an increase in the number of positive cases and hospitalizations. It is "pretty likely" to happen again, Boss said, even with a larger portion of the population vaccinated.
"We have been here before, last year, when we thought the numbers might be getting a little better, and then the holidays came," he said. "Right now in Northwest Georgia, our situation is very similar to where we were when that happened. It's possible it will again, though the number of people who have gotten vaccinated will probably keep it from being as much of a spike this time around."
Some people who have previously had COVID-19 will also have natural immunity.
"In Northwest Georgia, we have 46% fully vaccinated, and you can probably add another 39% or so of people who have been infected and who were either asymptomatic or didn't get tested," Boss said. "We could be up in the 70% or higher range for herd immunity, but there's no way to know to what extent, if any, that will slow the virus."
Herd immunity — the idea that vaccination of a large enough portion of the population would provide immunity to the extent that the virus either dies out or becomes dormant, usually estimated at around 85% — has been widely talked about since the start of the pandemic, but Boss said the Northwest Health District is now moving away from the idea. Instead, he said, officials are focusing on getting "as many people vaccinated as we can."
"After the delta variant, that became how we thought about this. We don't know what variants or whatever else might come up that we might not be immune to, so we want everyone to be vaccinated and that is our focus," he said. "We also want everyone to go ahead and get their booster if they are eligible and to get their flu shots. The flu can be a very serious illness, and we don't want to overburden our hospitals even more when we could have these COVID spikes."
People who are 65 or older, work in an assisted living facility, work jobs that put them at high risk for exposure or are immunocompromised are eligible to get a COVID-19 booster shot, and all Northwest Georgia health departments are still offering free COVID-19 immunizations to anyone 5 or older. Appointments are necessary, and children aged 5-11 looking to get the shot can only receive the pediatric Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
The pediatric vaccine was recommended earlier this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and is authorized for children as a two-dose series taken three weeks apart. So far, Boss said interest in those pediatric vaccinations had been low, both at the health department and local pediatricians' offices.
"There has been very little interest in the 5-11 vaccines through us, and that's what I am hearing from local pediatricians, too," Boss said. "I would call the amount of interest a trickle."
In addition to local health departments, Georgia residents who want COVID-19 vaccinations can get them from private providers. To find the closest COVID-19 vaccine provider, go to vaccines.gov.
Contact Kelcey Caulder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.