COVID-19 challenges remain for Georgians in the New Year

Georgians will be struggling with new challenges from the coronavirus pandemic as they settle into their New Year routine this week. From high hospitalizations to a possible post-holiday spike in cases to how state and federal governments plan to respond to it all, 2021 will bring new hurdles in the fight in the coronavirus pandemic.

Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University showed the U.S. surpassed 350,000 deaths from the virus early Sunday and earlier this week that more than 20 million people in the country have been infected. As of Sunday at 3 p.m., the Georgia Department of Public Health reports 9,893 confirmed and 1,071 probable deaths from the virus. The GDPH said there have been 587,076 confirmed cases in the state since the start of the pandemic.

Those total new case numbers do not include the 103,824 cases confirmed by antigen tests, commonly called rapid COVID tests.

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But the more troubling numbers are the two-week averages for new cases and hospitalizations. The past four days have seen the highest two-week average rate for new cases in a single day. According to GDPH data, there has been an average of 5,535 new coronavirus cases each day for the last two weeks. That is a total of 77,488 new cases in that same time period.

The state is also reporting an average of 107 more hospital beds are being used each day for coronavirus patients in the last two weeks. That is a total increase of 1,504 more beds. This number does not indicate the number of patients that have been hospitalized, but rather the resources to treat them. That number is much higher. So far, the GDPH report 42,483 Georgians have been hospitalized by the virus. Most hospitals have announced they are at or near capacity with an average of more than 30 percent of all patients suffering from coronavirus symptoms.

The good news, if it can be called that, is deaths from the virus are about half of those reported in August and September.

All these numbers cannot adequately quantify the human aspect of this pandemic.

"All you need to do ... is go into the trenches, go into the hospitals, go into the intensive care units, and see what is happening. Those are real numbers, real people and real deaths," Fauci said on NBC’s "Meet the Press."

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The vaccine rollout also continues in Georgia with more than 76,000 vaccines already administered. Reports suggest about 4.3 million vaccines have been administered in the U.S. to 1.3% of the population so far. That is well below the goal set by Operation Warp Speed but is partially being hampered by a reluctance on some to take the vaccine.

"A lot of people who are very afraid of taking the vaccine because they have a worry of the theoretical risk of side effects," Fulton County District Health Director Dr. Lynn Paxton

Paxton described side effects could range from soreness at the injection site to a mild fever.

"The side effects aren’t what people should be worried about. They tend to forget the risk of getting COVID," Dr. Paxton said. "I will take having a pain in my arm for two days of feeling like I have the flu for a day or so. I will take that any day of the week and twice on Sunday if it’s going to prevent me from getting COVID."

Sunday, the U.S. House and Senate opened at noon, as required by law, with strict COVID protocols. Elbow bumps replaced handshakes as senators took the oath of office. Fewer family members than usual joined lawmakers at the Capitol.

"To say the new Congress convenes at a challenging time would be an understatement," Sen. Mitch McConnell said as the chamber opened.

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The Capitol itself is a changed place under coronavirus restrictions. Lawmakers are arriving in Washington from all parts of the country potentially exposed to the virus during their travel.

Several lawmakers have been sickened by the virus and some will be absent Sunday. Also, a memorial was held Saturday for newly-elected Republican lawmaker Luke Letlow, 41, of Louisiana, who died of complications from COVID-19 days before the swearing-in.

The Office of the Attending Physician has issued several lengthy memos warning lawmakers off meeting in groups or holding traditional receptions to prevent the spread of the virus. Masks have been ordered worn at all times and Speaker Nancy Pelosi has required them to be used in the House chamber. Members are required to have coronavirus tests and have access to vaccines.

"Do not engage any in-person social events, receptions, celebrations, or appointments, outside your family unit, and always wear a face-covering outside your home," the physician’s office warned in one memo. "You should strictly avoid any type of office-based reception or celebration during the days ahead."

President-Elect Joe Biden has said he already plans to make the coronavirus his main focus once he is sworn into office on Jan. 20. Biden said he will make a big push for vaccinations in his first hundred days in office.

"The goal of vaccinating 100 million people in the first 100 days is a realistic goal," Fauci said.

The Georgia Legislature is set to open on Jan. 11. It was not immediately reported the measure that would be in place for this session to keep state senators and representatives safe, but likely will follow similar guidelines put in place for the second half of the last session. The 2020 General Assembly was suspended mid-session due to outbreak concerns. The session was delayed for two months and required nearly all state lawmakers to go into quarantine following the suspension. And while the election has gotten the most public attention from lawmakers, small business owners, health care systems, and average citizens are looking to the legislative body for help as the pandemic continues to impact them economically.

That help is desperately needed, especially as news of a new strain of the coronavirus, one which appears to be up to 70% more contagious, hits the U.S.

"Because it can be transmitted more easily that means more people could become infected more rapidly and we already have a healthcare system that's very strained," said Dr. John T. Brooks, who is the Chief Medical Officer for the CDC Emergency COVID-19 Response.

Fauci and others are warning that an additional surge is likely because of holiday gatherings and the cold weather keeping people indoors.

"It could and likely will get worse in the next couple of weeks, or at least maintain this very terribly high level of infections and deaths that we’re seeing," Fauci said.

Health officials emphasize that Georgians should hunker down and make a New Year’s resolution to continue to follow social distancing, frequently wash hands, and above all, wear a mask while out in public to help the spread of the disease.

FOX News and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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