Coronavirus, News

Mask Rules Make Comeback As Concern Grows On Virus Spread

The CDC updated its mask guidance Tuesday to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission of COVID. That includes nearly two-thirds of all U.S. counties – and almost all of Georgia.
The CDC updated its mask guidance Tuesday to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission of COVID. That includes nearly two-thirds of all U.S. counties – and almost all of Georgia.
Credit David J. Phillip / AP Photo
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Hospitals treating more patients and bracing for even more. Mask requirements returning. The push for vaccinations getting stronger, with more workers facing mandatory shots.

The unsettling rise in COVID cases has prompted a flurry of virus-related activity this week across the state and the nation.

Take Central Georgia. A Public Health spokesman there sent out data Monday that said his 13-county district has seen a major increase in COVID cases. The incidence rate of COVID-19 for district residents has hit 125 per 100,000 population, about four times the number from the previous two-week period. Emergency room visits and hospitalizations are climbing, too.

Mask wearing “has never been big around here,’’ said Michael Hokanson of the North Central Health District.

The 13 counties have lower vaccination rates than the statewide average of 40 percent, he added.

At Warner Robins-based Houston Healthcare, the number of hospital patients with COVID has quadrupled, going from seven at the start of July to 31 as of Tuesday.

Kevin Rowley, a spokesman for Houston, said that “like all health care providers, we are monitoring the situation very closely.”

Nearby, Atrium Health Navicent, based in Macon, has seen a hospital patient increase similar to those during past COVID surges.

This group of patients, though, is tending to be more middle-aged and younger, compared with previous virus waves.

“The vast majority of them are unvaccinated,’’ said Dr. Patrice Walker, chief medical officer at Atrium Health Navicent.

The rising numbers coincide with concerns about sufficient staffing, Walker added. “We have the same staffing limitations. It’s not just nurses,’’ she said, citing respiratory therapists as a critical need. (Here’s a recent GHN article about staffing shortages.)

The parent company of Navicent, Atrium Health, has decided it will require more than 70,000 employees across 40 hospitals to be vaccinated by Oct. 31, joining a growing list of health systems with that requirement.

The Macon-Bibb School District, meanwhile, decided this week to require masks for all students and staff, as school is ready to begin.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman, the infectious disease specialist at Coliseum Health System, told the Macon Telegraph that she applauds the move.

“Kids and all unvaccinated people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19,” she told the Telegraph via text.

Masks back on in Savannah

To prevent further spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, the CDC updated its mask guidance Tuesday to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission of COVID. That includes nearly two-thirds of all U.S. counties – and almost all of Georgia.

“In recent days I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause COVID-19,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.

“The Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and be an opportunist,” Walensky said. “In rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others. . . . This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations.”

The CDC is also now recommending universal indoor masking for all teachers, staffers, students and visitors inside schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, regardless of vaccination status. That follows a recent recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that anyone over the age of 2 be required to wear a mask in school.

Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, said Tuesday that the new mask guidance makes sense. “We just really need to stop transmission, and vaccinations certainly stop transmission, but with a low vaccine uptake and a lot of [vaccine] hesitancy, we need to go back to things that work,” she told reporters. “We know the Delta variant can’t get through masks.”

The masking requirement already is playing out in some Georgia schools districts, which are preparing for students’ arrival next week.

In the Athens area, all Clarke County students, regardless of vaccination status or grade, will be required to wear masks effective immediately, the Clarke system announced Monday.

In coastal Chatham County, the local school district did what its school superintendent called a “pandemic pivot.’’

Saying the goal is to teach all students in person five days a week, district Superintendent Ann Levett said Tuesday morning that all staff and students will be required to wear masks inside school buildings, the Savannah Morning News reported.

The City of Savannah, meanwhile, reinstated its mask mandate Monday. It went into effect at 8 a.m. that day and is set to expire Aug. 25.

The order requires everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask indoors when not with immediate family, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said.

More people heading to hospitals

Elsewhere in Georgia, hospitals are seeing a steady flow of virus patients.

Northeast Georgia Health System, based in Gainesville, said Monday that it was treating 53 COVID-19 patients as of that day, 23 more than a week earlier.

Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany said it has seen “a marked increase in COVID-19 admissions recently. “In Albany, we admitted a total of 12 patients for treatment of COVID over the last two days,’’ said spokesman Ben Roberts. “We’ve had 26 admissions over the last week, compared to just 32 total COVID-19 admissions for the entire month of June.’’

Both Northeast Georgia and Phoebe Putney treated a flood of patients during previous surges.

Also this week, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and dozens of other groups representing medical professionals called Monday for COVID-19 vaccines to be mandatory for health care workers, citing the rise of the Delta variant.

In a joint statement, groups including the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Nursing, the American College of Surgeons and dozens of others urged health care employers to require COVID-19 vaccinations for their workers.

Here’s a recent article from GHN and WebMD and Medscape about surprisingly low vaccination rates for employees at many hospitals.