By Dave Williams & Matt Aiken / Capitol Beat & The Nugget
As promising vaccine developments continue, a jump in local COVID cases has resulted in one of the biggest seven-day surges since the beginning of the pandemic, increasing Lumpkin County’s count by 134 cases over the week.
That count stands at 1,487 confirmed cases as of Monday, according to reports from the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Thankfully the death toll has been holding steady with no new reported fatalities over the past month. A total of 19 Lumpkin County residents have died from the disease.
The local hospitalization rate increased from 133 to 139 over the week.
Meanwhile, the Lumpkin County School System is headed into the Christmas holidays with a reported four students and two teachers currently testing positive for COVID-19. A total of 76 students have been quarantined for possible exposure, while no staff members are currently under quarantine.
It’s against this backdrop that Georgia health-care workers and nursing home residents will start receiving immunizations against COVID-19 this week as the state Department of Public Health (DPH) gets its first shipments of a vaccine produced by Pfizer.
The first shipment of 5,850 doses arrived Monday at two locations in Coastal Georgia equipped with ultracold freezers required for storage and temperature control of the vaccine. Additional shipments are expected later this week at facilities in other parts of the state.
“Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” Christy Norman, vice president of pharmacy services at Emory Healthcare, said Monday during a news briefing.
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control during the weekend issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine, the first to emerge from the U.S. pipeline targeting coronavirus. A second vaccine produced by Moderna is expected to receive federal approval for distribution this week.
“This is really exciting for us,” said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiologist at Emory. “We’re going to have access to a vaccine that looks in initial clinical studies to be highly effective.”
Approval of vaccines to combat COVID-19 is being sped through what usually is a lengthy process by the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed because of the pressing nature of the pandemic, as cases of COVID-19 diagnoses, hospitalizations and deaths continue surging across the country.
As of Sunday, 476,044 had been diagnosed with coronavirus, and 9,205 had died from the virus in Georgia.
But Sexton said the rush to get the vaccines into American arms did not compromise safety. The technology behind the vaccines was thoroughly tested in clinical trials before the pandemic began, she said.“The researchers were able to use lessons learned,” she said.
Sexton said Americans should not be concerned about the side effects accompanying the vaccines, including soreness in the arm, fatigue or a slight fever.
“These are not serious, life-threatening or dangerous,” she said.
Sexton said health-care workers will be in the first group to get the shots because of concerns that the surge in coronavirus hospitalizations is straining the health-care workforce.
“Even if they have a mild case [of COVID-19], they’re out of work 10 days,” she said. “We’ve got a real concern for staff to take care of patients.”
Sexton said the prioritizing of health-care workers for vaccinations includes not just doctors and nurses but custodians, transporters and other hospital workers.
“All of these people are considered health-care workers and are prioritized,” she said.
The other group getting top priority to receive the vaccines – residents of nursing homes and other elderly-care facilities – will be served through a partnership the CDC has set up with CVS and Walgreens.
Sexton said the next group to receive vaccinations after health-care workers and residents of elderly-care facilities probably will be essential workers who must leave their homes despite the pandemic, such as grocery store employees and delivery truck drivers.
Another group that will receive high priority are seniors and Georgians suffering from chronic illnesses that leave them vulnerable to the virus, she said.
While many Americans have expressed reservations about getting the shots out of safety concerns, Sexton said the number of willing participants is going up, probably due to the impact of the surge in cases.
Medical experts have said achieving “herd immunity” against COVID-19 – the threshold for making further spread of the virus unlikely—is getting 60 to 70 percent of the U.S. population vaccinated.