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Augusta hospitals see higher but “steady” number of new COVID-19 cases, outlook brighter



AUGUSTA, Ga. – The last few weeks have seen COVID-19 cases go up and down in Augusta hospitals, hovering around a dozen patients at a time, and that might be the case for a while, health officials said.

“We’re at a moderately high plateau, if you wish,” said Dr. Ioana Chirca, medical director for infectious diseases, infection control and microbial stewardship at University Hospital, which has gone from 24 inpatients last week to 12 on Monday to 14 on Tuesday.

“This disease has been a bit tricky so I am always hesitant to jump to any conclusions but my perception is we’re just in kind of a steady state, not really having a big surge in cases,” said Dr. Phillip Coule, chief medical officer for AU Health System, where the census went from 13 COVID-19 patients last week to 16 on Tuesday. “We’re admitting people to the hospital but we’re also discharging them at about the same rate. We’re kind of holding steady.”

Richmond County and McDuffie County continue to see higher levels of cases, with a rate of 165 per 100,000 over the last two weeks in Richmond and 194 per 100,000 in McDuffie, compared to 120 per 100,000 for the state as a whole, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. Overall, the seven-day average for new cases for Georgia has declined from 957.57 on April 20 to 833 on Tuesday, according to an analysis by the Augusta Chronicle.

‘The age is definitely lower’

What has changed from previous bumps in cases is the age, Chirca said.

“What we notice in our hospital is that the age is definitely lower than what we are used to seeing,” she said, with a couple of patients in their 20s and others in their 40s and 50s, compared to the elderly that were felled during earlier waves.

“Definitely we are not seeing the advanced age that we used to see,” Chirca said. “And I think that is that the vaccination campaign has been mostly successful in that age group.” While Georgia Public Health shows 23% of Richmond County has received at least one dose of vaccine, it is 68.9% for those 65-74 and 75% for those 85 and above. None of those currently in the hospital was vaccinated, Chirca said.

That could be part of the reason rates for younger people are higher now, particularly in Richmond County. Statewide, there are 1,320 cases in those 18-22 over the last two weeks, and 9,947 in those ages 23 and slightly older, with rates of 180 per 100,000 and 137 per 100,000 respectively, public health data showed. They are even higher for Richmond County, with rates of 197 per 100,000 in those ages 18-22 and 165 per 100,000 in those 23-plus, the data showed.

“I definitely think they do represent the reservoir of infection right now,” Chirca said. That age group is a little tricky in that they tend not to be tested as much as some others, so it adds to the uncertainty, Coule said. And a more contagious variant is now spreading widely around the state, which makes things harder to predict, he said.

“You’ve got the variant impacting things, you have the weather impacting things,” Coule said. “You’ve got holidays and big gatherings impacting things. That adds to a lot of uncertainty about what may transpire.”

Better outlook for this Memorial Day

Last year, Memorial Day was a watershed event for the state as cases picked up after those gatherings and accelerated through the summer, peaking in late July. But both Chirca and Coule said there is a better outlook this year.

“Any opportunity for large gatherings is definitely concerning but I am nowhere near as concerned as I was last year,” Chirca said. “I am not expecting a whole lot more hospitalizations secondary to that.

“I’m feeling better about it,” Coule said. “I was really afraid we were going to have a big surge and certainly the trend with younger patients being admitted is still very disturbing, But the fact that we’ve held steady is somewhat reassuring. I’ll feel a little better if we get past the Memorial Day weekend and we don’t see numbers going up.”