COVID-19

ATLANTA — The number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Georgia has risen substantially over the past few weeks, mirroring a national trend that has public health experts worried.

The state’s seven-day average of new cases stood at more than 855 Tuesday, up from 365 on June 25. Some 676 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 — over 4% of the state’s patient count and up from 423 on June 19, according to state data.

Both numbers are nowhere near January peaks, when the seven-day average topped 9,000. But health experts say they show the need for more people to get vaccinated, particularly with the rise of the fast-spreading delta variant of the virus. Only 39% of Georgia residents are fully vaccinated, well below the rate in many other states.

The combination of a fairly low vaccination rate, the highly transmissible delta variant and a general relaxation in mask requirements and other precautions is a “recipe for a potential tinderbox,” said Sarah McCool, a professor in public health at Georgia State University.

McCool said she wants to see whether the state's COVID-19 numbers continue to increase at the same pace over the next week or two, but the rise she's seen so far is “certainly concerning.”

Fourth of July gatherings may also be a factor in the numbers and could be creating a temporary spike, said Pinar Keskinocak, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who heads the school’s Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems. But she quickly added that she was not optimistic about that assessment, and the numbers could keep climbing.

“Given what we know about the delta variant, there’s a high likelihood it’s probably not a small blip,” she said.

At two coastal hospitals in Georgia run by Southeast Georgia Health System, the number of coronavirus patients has climbed from three to five in the middle of June to between 15 and 20 now, President and CEO Michael D. Scherneck said.

Vaccination rates in some nearby counties have trailed even the state’s average.

“For those of the ‘wait and see’ mindset, we urge you to get the vaccine now,” Scherneck said in an email. “Even if you believe you’re healthy enough to withstand the illness, get the vaccine to protect your loved ones and your community.”

State health officials teamed up with the Atlanta Motor Speedway over the weekend to promote vaccination at a concert ahead of a NASCAR race. They have also helped with vaccination efforts at businesses, churches and community organizations. Two health care groups that operate hospitals in Georgia — Piedmont and Trinity Health — recently said they will require employees to get vaccinated.

“People who are unvaccinated or skip their second dose of vaccine are targets for infection,” the state Department of Public Health said in a statement on Wednesday.

Other places in the country facing similar increases in COVID-19 cases have urged even vaccinated people to resume wearing masks in public. Mississippi officials have recommended that people 65 and older and those with chronic underlying conditions stay away from large indoor gatherings because of a 150% rise in hospitalizations over the past three weeks.

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