Overview of a semester of COVID-19_graphic

COVID-19 cases in Athens-Clarke County have been on an upward slope since Dec. 28, 2020, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The county saw a 55% increase in cases reported between the last week of December and cases reported last week.

There was a slight dip in daily cases reported in the days following the end of the University of Georgia’s final exams.

Facing the risks

On Jan. 8, as many students prepared to return to campus for in-person learning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study about the risks of in-person learning at large universities for students and the community.

Per the report, counties without large colleges or universities saw a 6% decrease in cases of COVID-19 after classes started, whereas counties with large colleges or universities and in-person instruction saw a 56% increase in cases. The study compared the amount of cases over the 21-day periods before and after the start of classes in fall 2020.

UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said in an email with The Red & Black that it is safe to return to UGA because UGA has already successfully had in-person classes.

“Unlike some colleges and universities across the country that are just returning to face-to-face instruction, the University of Georgia has already experienced one successful semester of having our students and faculty back on campus and in class,” Trevor said. 

He added that refresher training on health and safety protocols is required to be completed by all faculty, staff and students by the end of the month. Trevor did not respond to questions about the consequences for students who fail to complete their training.

Even what UGA considers a successful fall semester did not relieve local health care systems of the burdensome effects of COVID-19 in Athens.

Dr. Jessica Satterfield, the director of quality and clinical excellence at St. Mary’s Health Care System, said critical care capacity in Region E has already been strained for several weeks. Region E encompasses several counties in northeast Georgia, including ACC.

Satterfield said the region has adequate ventilator capacity but acknowledged that critical care capacity continues to grow tight.

“Most hospitals in our region and throughout the state are experiencing record-high COVID patients, both in general med-surg [medical surgical unit] status and in critical care status,” Satterfield said.

Statewide, ICU beds are at 91.5% capacity. According to Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s external affairs team, the Georgia World Congress Center reopened on Jan. 1 to relieve overwhelmed hospitals in the state. 

The most recent update to Region E’s data on critical care capacity shows that out of 621 general inpatient beds, 571 or 92% are currently in use.

Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center, which works closely with St. Mary’s to treat patients, did not respond to The Red & Black’s requests for updates on their critical care capacity.

“Both of our systems are stressed but continue to meet the needs of our community,” Satterfield said. “It is vitally important that people with potential medical emergencies seek care immediately. Delaying care can lead to worse outcomes.”

Vaccine on the horizon

Satterfield emphasized that the best hope for ending the pandemic is the vaccine. 

According to an ArchNews email, UGA’s University Health Center has already begun vaccinating health care workers in accordance with CDC and DPH protocols. The administration has not released a plan to vaccinate the entire UGA community, but is asking members of the UGA community to fill out a short vaccine survey evaluating their age, health conditions and desire to be vaccinated. The survey is due on Jan. 21.

“Demand far exceeds supply at this time,” Satterfield said. “It will likely take several months for all healthcare partners to vaccinate enough people to put this pandemic behind us.”

In the meantime, she said hospitals reckoning with the impact of the virus need people to double their efforts to stop the spread of the virus.