FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — The new year has seen an exponential boom in COVID-19 cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations throughout Fulton County.
At their meeting Jan. 5, county commissioners received the latest data from the Georgia Department of Public Health and laid plans to increase access to testing.
“The seven-day averages for cases, hospitalizations and percent positives as of today are all at record highs for Fulton County,” Doug Schuster, Fulton County planning section chief said. “Ninety-two percent of all new cases are from the omicron variant.”
Schuster also provided data demonstrating increases recorded since the last BOC meeting Dec. 15.
“County hospitalizations have increased 667% since the last BOC meeting and pediatric COVID admissions are up 771% since the last BOC meeting,” Schuster said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has established benchmarks for measuring transmission levels of the COVID-19 virus throughout the country ranging from low to high transmission rates. It considers total new cases per 100,000 residents and percentage of positive tests over the past seven days to calculate the rating.
A community is considered a high transmission area if they have 100 or more new cases per 100,000 in the past seven days and a percentage of positive tests equal to or greater than 10% during the same time period.
Fulton County reported 1,432 new cases per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate of 36.6% during the prior seven days as of the Jan. 5 meeting.
“So, we are 14 times the recommended amount of cases to be considered for high transmission,” Schuster said, and a positivity rate “which is three and a half times the recommended amount for mandatory masking.”
In September, Fulton County Schools implemented a set of procedures and strategies – a mitigation matrix – for school functions as COVID-19 cases rise in the community.
Mitigation procedures correlate to transmission rates. The highest transmission rate included in the matrix is 1,250 cases per 100,000, nearly 200 cases fewer than current Fulton County numbers.
At the highest benchmark, there is a “potential switch to remote learning,” and no allowed spectators for athletics, performances or “extras.”
On Dec. 31, Fulton County Schools announced a temporary shift to remote learning for the first week of the spring semester, with a plan to return to in-person learning on Jan. 10.
December was a record-breaking month for COVID-19 numbers in Fulton County. Prior to last month, the highest monthly total of new cases was January 2021 with 17,330 recorded cases. In December there were 23,410.
Fulton County cities saw increases in case numbers in the four weeks from Dec. 2 to Dec. 29 ranging from 714% to 3,200%.
North Fulton County COVID-19 case counts
|City||Dec. 2-Dec. 15||Dec. 16-Dec. 29||% Increase|
Since Dec. 15, Schuster said, the daily average for cases is up 1,687%.
“It has more than doubled our previous high from January 3 of last year,” Schuster said. “The percent positives is the one that is just crazy – 36.6%, an 813% increase since the last BOC… Anybody that’s driving through our testing centers, over one in three cars has an infected individual in the car.”
While hospitalizations have risen nearly seven-fold since Dec. 15, Schuster said, average death rates have decreased by 200% in the same period.
“But remember, death lags from hospitalizations and ventilators by about four to five weeks,” Schuster said.
Schuster warned against that perception that omicron is a milder variant of the virus.
“Kind of alarmingly, we see a lot of information about [omicron] is not as serious,” Schuster said. “Currently, in Fulton County we have 69 people on ventilators that have COVID-19… it’s up about 400% since the last BOC meeting.”
Even without a lot of scheduled procedures in area hospitals, Schuster said Fulton County is already “in the red” on hospital bed availability and the trend is expected to continue.
The projected peak of spread, based on Fulton County modeling, is now estimated to hit at the end of January, nearly two weeks earlier than previous estimates.
Vaccines remain in ‘ample supply’
Roughly 61% of Fulton County’s population is fully vaccinated, with a little more than a third of those having also received a booster shot.
Matt Kallmyer, director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management, implored commissioners to amplify the vaccination and booster messaging to get more residents vaccinated.
While testing capacity has been strained in recent weeks, vaccination capacity remains in “ample supply,” Kallmyer told the Herald.
“There’s a lot of appointments available… especially at the location we have in the south on Stonewall Tell Road,” Kallmyer said. “We just want to make sure that people are aware that we’re there and to take advantage of it.”
Fulton County has six vaccination locations, each with a supply of Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccinations and boosters, Kallmyer said.
First and second vaccine doses are being offered to everyone age 5 and up, and boosters are available to those age 16 and up.
When asked about vaccine and booster efficacy in preventing infection at the Jan. 5 meeting, Kallmyer reported that two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine like Moderna or Pfizer are 50% effective at preventing infection, where individuals who have received a booster shot have up to 75% protection against infection with the current omicron variant.
“You got to remember the vaccines’ sole mission is to keep you out of a mortuary and to keep you out of an [intensive care unit], and it’s doing its function in that regard,” Kallmyer said.
Commissioner Liz Hausmann called those statistics especially “eye-opening,” urging county officials to share the efficacy data.
“It explains why so many people that are vaccinated are getting this new variant,” Hausmann said. “I would hope we would also communicate that. I think it might help people take an added level of protection that they may not think they need.”
County plans to ramp up testing
On New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, Fulton County collected nearly 3,000 specimens between its three testing sites and is hoping to increase testing capacity in the coming days by partnering with the Georgia Department of Public Health, Kallmyer said.
County officials are working with the state to potentially launch a “mega-site” for testing in Fulton.
Kallmyer told the Herald that he expects details of the new joint site to be announced no later than Jan. 10.
But the Georgia Department of Public Health would not confirm plans for the mega-site.
“DPH is in discussions about sites that could accommodate mass testing for COVID-19. One of the sites we are assessing is in Fulton County,” Nancy Nydam, director of communications for the Georgia DPH said in an email to the Herald.
This week Fulton County is expected to receive 46,000 at-home test kits for residents, County Manager Dick Anderson said, but officials are still ironing out a plan for distribution.
Money for the tests comes through a federal equity grant, Pamela Roshell, chief operating officer of the Fulton County Health and Human Services Department said.
“While there will be focus throughout Fulton County to distribute the test kits, there will be special emphasis on communities with low vaccination rates, high COVID rates throughout the community,” Roshell said. “We will also have a reserve for direct-to-consumer for constituents who simply cannot get to one of the designated distribution sites as well as partnerships with community-based organizations.”
In her presentation, Roshell also recommended commissioners acquire 46,000 more at-home test kits, doubling the quantity already procured.
She said she has been working with the CDC to vet vendors of the test kits to ensure they meet Food and Drug Administration requirements for efficacy.
She said costs of the home tests are trending between $16 to $24 per test with total cost estimates ranging between $736,000 and $1.1 million. American Rescue Plan Act funds are the proposed source of funding.
In the meantime, Fulton County’s three testing sites are still up and running with locations at South Fulton Service Center, the Center for Health and Rehabilitation and along North Point Parkway in Alpharetta.
For more information on testing and vaccinations in Fulton County, visit fultoncountyga.gov/covid-19.