ATLANTA - Cases of COVID-19 in Georgia have surged to levels not seen since the virus peaked last January, a public health expert warned this week.
New cases statewide are nearing 8,000 a day, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Of Georgians being tested for COVID-19, 17.2% are turning up positive, Dr. Janet Memark, district health director for Cobb & Douglas Public Health, said Thursday during an online forum sponsored by the Georgia House Democratic Caucus. The community is considered safe when fewer than 5% of test results are positive, she said.
Memark blamed the delta variant, which is much more contagious than the original strain of coronavirus that first struck Georgia in March of last year.
“It is just really rampant now throughout our communities,” she said.
Memark said many hospitals are being strained, with unvaccinated Georgians making up the vast majority of rising patient loads.
“We are seeing some breakthrough cases,” she said. “But they’re not being hospitalized or dying. The vaccine is working.”
Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading epidemiologist at Emory University, said a person who contracts the delta variant of COVID-19 can infect up to eight others, making it much more dangerous than the original strain, which typically can infect two to three people exposed to someone with the virus.
“The virus we’re facing today is very different from the original virus,” he said. “This is so highly transmissible, it’s not the COVID we knew a year ago.”
Memark said another disturbing aspect of the current stage of COVID-19 is that it’s hitting children. In Georgia, cases involving children between the ages of 11 and 17 have doubled in the last week, she said.
The COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Pfizer won formal approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week. However, that approval did not extend to children.
Del Rio said he expects researchers will have a vaccine available for kids by November or December.
Meanwhile, he said he’s concerned that COVID fatigue is causing Georgians to let down their guard at a dangerous time.
“We are in a major surge right now, yet the restaurants are full,” he said. “Everybody is acting as if nothing is going on.”
Del Rio said while vaccines are the best defense against COVID-19, including the delta variant, people still need to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently.
“People are very tired. I understand that,” he said. “We all want this to be over. [But] it’s not going to be over when we want.”
Georgia passed the 1 million mark in cases of coronavirus last week and was up to 1,056,788 cases as of Thursday afternoon. The virus has hospitalized 71,862 Georgians and resulted in 22,492 confirmed or probable deaths.