As a college community, Athens-Clarke County dealt with particular problems most communities did not have to face during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Most specifically, the county had to manage an influx of young people into the city while trying to keep the virus in check.
Those issues have been magnified over the course of the fall semester.
COVID-19 trends since August
For much of the summer, COVID-19 cases in Athens remained roughly the same. During the month of May, there were only a few dozen cases per week. While the number of cases rose to around 200-300 cases per week for most of July, they seemed to stabilize. After a surge of deaths from late March to mid-April, deaths also remained low for much of the summer, with none reported in May and only two reported in June.
The number of current hospitalizations reached their peak in late July and early August in Georgia’s Region E. Region E includes Athens and 11 surrounding counties, including Oconee and Oglethorpe. Although these figures include patients who are not from Athens, the hospitalizations were ultimately a signal of a sharp rise in deaths in Athens.
Yet cases increased significantly following the start of the University of Georgia’s fall 2020 semester. A few weeks after the semester started, the county reported among the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in Georgia. From Sept. 3-9, the county reported 960 cases, the most it has reported in a seven-day time span. The surge in cases appeared to be driven by young people. Cases in the UGA community were concentrated in the student populations, and they could have spread the virus to other Athens residents.
After cases rose, deaths followed weeks later. On July 28, there were 15 total deaths in Athens since the start of the pandemic, and there had not been a death in seven weeks. From July 29 through the end of September, the county reported 29 more deaths.
Eventually, the rate of new cases and deaths declined. After reporting 1,490 cases for the week of Aug. 31-Sept. 6, UGA cases declined for several weeks. In addition, current hospitalizations in Region E — which fell despite the spike in cases — declined too until around mid-October.
As the end of the fall 2020 semester draws near, there are possible warning signs. The number of new cases in Athens has been rising, and the county reported over 200 new cases during the week of Nov. 9-15. In addition, the number of current hospitalizations in Region E has been rising, albeit more slowly than it did during the summer. On Nov. 1, there were 51 COVID-19 patients in Region E hospitals. On Nov. 15, there were 80.
However, there is a possible silver lining. Deaths have not risen as much as they have earlier in the pandemic. In an email to The Red & Black, Georgia Department of Public Health spokesperson Nancy Nydam said this may be due to improved treatments.
“When cases begin to increase, unfortunately we know that hospitalizations and eventually deaths will follow,” Nydam said. “Deaths are not as high as they were earlier in the pandemic, and that may be a reflection of having a better idea of how to care for patients.”
How the pandemic has affected different groups
The pandemic has hit some communities and groups much harder than others. These trends have mostly mirrored what has happened nationally. Nydam said that, as is the case elsewhere, some groups in Athens are more vulnerable than others.
“Vulnerable populations exist everywhere, including Athens-Clarke County,” Nydam said. “The elderly, people with compromised immune systems or individuals with preexisting medical conditions are at increased risk for infection.”
Half of the 50 Athens residents who have died from the coronavirus have been Black, despite the fact that only 27.7% of the Athens population is Black or African American alone, according to 2019 estimates from the Census Bureau.
In addition, coronavirus deaths were concentrated mostly among older Athens residents. Residents 60 years old or older accounted for 44 deaths. There were also 24 deaths in long-term care facilities, including 12 in the PruittHealth Grandview facility and 11 in the University Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
Men were more likely to die from COVID-19 than women. Although female Athens residents had over 700 more cases than male residents, there were 10 more deaths among men than women.
The pandemic has also devastated the economies of communities nationwide. The effects have not been shared equally. According to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Black-owned businesses have been almost twice as likely to fail as businesses overall, in part because they are concentrated in cities. Some Black-owned businesses in Athens, however, gained new customers as communities frequented minority-owned businesses following the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Early in the pandemic, the economies of college towns such as Athens struggled as much of the student consumer base left in March and did not come back until the fall semester. Since then, however, Athens’ unemployment rate has remained lower than in other parts of the state. According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the unemployment rate in the Athens-Clarke area in September — which includes Athens-Clarke, Madison, Oconee and Oglethorpe Counties — had an unemployment rate of 5.0%, compared with a 6.4% statewide rate. However, this is still up from February, when the Athens-Clarke area had an unemployment rate of 3.3%
The distribution of vaccines may help to reduce the death rate. Pfizer announced that early data showed its vaccine was over 90% effective on Nov. 9. Moderna followed soon after, announcing that its data showed its vaccine was 94.5% effective on Nov. 16.
It is not clear what the situation will be like in January, especially when students move back for the spring semester. In addition, vulnerable communities may not have immediate access to the vaccines. It could be several difficult months before life begins to return to normal.