Georgia rolls back precautions two years after COVID-19 shut down, leaving some vulnerable

Three masks on surfaceMasks (Photo credit CDC/Debora Cartagena)

by Clay Voytek, Georgia Recorder [This article was first published in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
April 11, 2022

State Sen. Donzella James’ voice isn’t as strong as it used to be. In January 2021, James tested positive for COVID-19. She thought it was just her chronic bronchitis, but the next morning, she found herself in a crowded emergency room. After subsequent bouts of pneumonia and blood clots, she finally left the hospital in May.

James, an Atlanta Democrat, remains vigilant about COVID-19 today. “I saw people every day dying all around me,” she said. “I am concerned because I know far well what that COVID can do to you.”

Just over two years ago, on April 3, 2020, Gov. Brian Kemp established a statewide shelter-in-place order, which he lifted a month later.

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Today, cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the state are all relatively low by pandemic standards, according to the latest figures from the Georgia Department of Public Health. The majority of Georgia counties have low rates of community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

State leaders have responded quickly by loosening public health measures. In late March, Kemp signed a bill banning school mask mandates. In early April, the Georgia Legislature passed a bill banning “vaccine passports,” and it awaits the governor’s signature.

“We know that our numbers are down because people are not really being tested,” said Rex Democratic state Rep. Sandra Scott. “We need to continue to encourage testing; we need to continue to encourage people to get vaccinated because we do not know where this virus stops.”

James is one of more than 110,000 Georgians hospitalized with COVID-19 since the pandemic claimed Georgia’s first reported death. She wears a mask everywhere and checks the latest numbers daily with an app on her phone. But not everyone is taking this level of care.

Mask, vaccine politics

Pandemic fatigue became an issue in Georgia before the end of 2020. Today, it’s normal once again to see people’s faces at the Capitol, in classrooms and on MARTA rides.

Posted notices of the federal public transportation mask mandate, which sparked a lawsuit from congressional Republicans last month, are still visible at MARTA stations around the metro Atlanta area. Unmasked passengers will theoretically be removed, but the rule isn’t strictly enforced. Keeping with the pandemic fatigue trend, free COVID-19 PCR testing at the Five Points station ended on March 29.

Nationwide, a March Gallup poll found that 3% of respondents said the top problem facing the United States is the coronavirus or diseases, the lowest percentage since the start of the pandemic. Data from the state health department shows at least 400 Georgians died from COVID-19 in March.

At the end of this year’s legislative session, some at the state Capitol were still taking stringent precautions.

“We still have about 12 legislators that sit upstairs in the balcony, and I am one of those,” said Scott. “We do not want to sit on the floor with that close proximity to people. I just think it’s too close when people are not wearing their masks.”

Scott said she’s just recently gotten comfortable going to events, and she’ll sometimes take her mask off for pictures depending on the circumstances. In Georgia, photos of Democratic leaders without masks have become a go-to way for conservatives to score political points.

Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams courted controversy in February by posing unmasked in a photo with school children, and a photo of Sen. Raphael Warnock on a plane without a mask received 25,000 likes on Twitter in March.

The context of Warnock’s photo is still unclear, but it is permissible to briefly remove a mask on a plane long enough to eat or drink. Last week, Warnock tested positive for COVID-19. In an announcement on Twitter, he encouraged people to get vaccinated.

“Let’s take politics out of this health crisis that we have,” James said.

Georgia’s vaccination rate is still among the lowest in the country, according to the latest CDC data. According to the state health department, 56% of Georgians have been fully vaccinated, and 40% of those individuals have received a booster shot.

“A majority of those who were not vaccinated, they have had some kind of COVID infection,” said Isaac Chun-Hai Fung, an associate professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University, explaining that many Georgians now have some form of immunity.

Fung said the latest Omicron sub-variant, BA.2, is unlikely to cause a surge in cases as large as Georgia’s most recent wave, but he stressed that immunity doesn’t last forever.

“At the end of this year, we might see another wave, and in those circumstances, putting on face masks is both a personal choice to protect ourselves but also a civic responsibility to protect other vulnerable individuals,” Fung said.

Weighing risks of return to normal

Elliott Gray, 31, has chronic kidney disease, which places him at higher risk for a severe COVID-19 infection. Gray recently moved from Savannah to Sandy Springs, in part to get treatment at Emory Health Center.

Gray was hospitalized with pulmonary embolisms in December 2020, and his doctors suspected they were caused by an otherwise asymptomatic case of COVID-19.

“I spent three weeks in the hospital because of lung damage,” he said.

Gray still calculates the risks each time he leaves his house, and he avoids places where he knows people won’t be masked. Adding to his concern, Gray’s 8-year-old daughter, who lives in Savannah, has epilepsy. He says because a higher temperature can cause more frequent seizures, Charlotte is still wearing a mask at school for her safety.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, previously at odds with Kemp’s statewide policy, chose to end the city’s mask mandate at the beginning of March.

“Things are going well, keeping in mind that this pandemic has not left us,” Johnson said. “We could go from a mask mandate to shutting our city down if the health conditions warrant it.”

Johnson said that his medical advisory team still reviews COVID-19 numbers daily, and he’s meeting with them periodically.

“In some ways, I do think we need to get relatively back to normal because it is going to be around, and I don’t think we’re ever going to get rid of it,” Gray said. “I do think we should probably normalize wearing masks though, in general.”

In late March, Gray’s children visited him for their spring break, and they took a trip to the Fernbank Museum. Asked what others could do to ease some of the anxiety for immunocompromised individuals and families, Gray requested to simply be kept in mind.

“Honestly, just remember that we’re here; just remember that what you do affects people that you don’t know,” Gray said. “If you go out sick and you don’t cover your face, you might kill someone. I don’t think people realize that.”

Statewide COVID-19 resources

For the latest status report from the Georgia Department of Public Health, visit: https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-19-daily-status-report

For information related to COVID-19 testing in Georgia, visit: https://gema.georgia.gov/covid-19-testing-info

For information related to COVID-19 vaccines in Georgia, visit:

https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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