AUGUSTA, Ga. – Less than two weeks out from Masters Week and the return from spring break, Augusta hospitals are again seeing their beds fill with COVID-19 patients and cases overall are climbing compared to other cities. But this surge may be different than previous spikes.
After many weeks, the Augusta area has again returned to a list of hot spots highlighted in the Community Profile Report from the White House COVID-19 Team. Augusta is one of 10 cities with under 1 million population listed as “Statistical Areas with Increasing Burden” from the disease, including a 23% increase in cases over the last week, according to that report.
Since April 2, the Friday before Masters Week, through Tuesday, Richmond County had 403 new cases compared to 278 for the same period prior, according to analysis by The Augusta Chronicle. Augusta has had 154 cases per 100,000 population over the last two weeks compared to 103 per 100,000 for Savannah, 115 per 100,000 for Athens, and 70 per 100,000 for Macon, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health.
The three Augusta hospitals had a combined 48 COVID-19 inpatients Tuesday, a level they last saw March 12, and all have seen slow increases over the last two weeks.
But the roots for this latest surge may have begun before Masters Week and spring break in the spread of a more contagious B.1.1.7 variant of the SARS CoV-2 virus, said Dr. Phillip Coule, chief medical officer for AU Health System. As of Tuesday, the variant made up 46.4% of all viruses sequenced in Georgia, clearly now the dominant strain, and “that has doubled over the past few weeks,” he said.
“Given what we know about B.1.1.7 and given what we know about how this disease has affected people in the past, I think the most likely scenario is this surge is being caused by B117 because we know it to be a little more virulent,” Coule said. “And these are unvaccinated people under the age of 50.”
Under age 50, younger affected
Among those hospitalized at AU Health, 58% were under age 50, which is completely different than what hospitals were seeing in previous surges, he said.
“To have 58% of your patients under the age of 50 is pretty remarkable,” Coule said. “I think it is important for people to understand that this variant presents increased risk for those that are younger if they are unvaccinated. And I would really encourage that age group to get vaccinated.”
And the difference in Augusta is showing up in school-aged children and young adults as well, according to Georgia Public Health data. The rate of COVID-19 cases among those ages 5-17 was 120 per 100,000 for Augusta compared to 56 per 100,000 for Savannah, 222 per 100,000 for those 18-22 in Augusta compared to 142 per 100,000 for Savannah, and 153 per 100,000 for those age 23 and older in Augusta compared to 124 per 100,000 for Savannah, the data showed.
But of those groups, the ones that would be of most concern would be the college-age students, Coule said, particularly that they are more likely to engage in higher-risk activities.
“A bar at the beach, which is probably a bunch of young people at a bar, crowded together, no masks, is probably the worst situation one could think of for transmitting this,” he said. “We unfortunately had everything set up right before spring break for this to happen in terms of the B.1.1.7 variant. When you look at the college-age crowd, my assessment is it is not what happens in the classroom that is the big deal, it is what happens outside the classroom that is the big deal. That’s probably where spring break could have a big impact.”
But unlike previous surges, this time there are less susceptible people to fuel the spread, with about a third of Georgians receiving at least one shot and “our most vulnerable population well-vaccinated,” Coule said. Given that, “I am hoping that the surge won’t be as profound,” he said.