While longstanding COVID-19 distancing restrictions in Georgia are set to be rolled back Thursday, a Georgia Southern University professor would like to see more state residents get vaccinated against coronavirus first.
Starting Thursday, Georgia’s months-long ban on gatherings of more than 50 people in one place will be lifted per orders from Gov. Brian Kemp. Restaurants and bars will be allowed to seat patrons at least 3.5 feet from each other instead of the previous 6-foot requirement. Movie-goers can sit 3 feet from each other in indoor theaters. A shelter-in-place order for nursing homes and other elderly-care facilities also will be lifted.
Isaac Fung, an associate professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health, however, told the Capitol Beat News Service that Georgia should hold off on fully reopening until about three-fourths of all residents have been vaccinated to reach herd immunity, he said.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, 15% of state residents have been fully vaccinated, while 28% have received at least one dose. In Bulloch County, the Department of Health reports 12% of residents have been fully vaccinated, while 16% have received at least one dose.
The White House said earlier this week that nearly 1 in 3 Americans and over 40% of adults have received at least one shot, and nearly 1 in 4 adults is fully vaccinated. Seventy-five percent of people older than 65 have now received at least one shot, and more than 55% of them are fully vaccinated.
In a local effort to make the COVID-19 vaccine more easily available, Katie Hadden, public information officer for the Southeast Health District said the Bulloch County Health Department will hold a drive-through COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Saturday in Statesboro. The clinic is open to all Georgians aged 18 and older and will offer the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The Health Department is located at 1 West Altman Street and an appointment is required to receive a vaccination. Appointments are open from 8 to 11 a.m. To register, visit https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine, and select the blue box that states, “Health Department Scheduling.” To make an appointment over the phone, call (855) 473-4374.
In addition to the Health Department, vaccine appointments are readily available in Bulloch County at numerous pharmacies, doctors’ offices and East Georgia Regional Medical Center.
The rollback drew praise from state business leaders, including restaurant owners who have been hit hard by the pandemic over the past year. Roughly 20% of Georgia’s restaurants remain closed after more than half shut down temporarily in the pandemic’s early days, said Karen Bremer, president of the Georgia Restaurant Association.
Bremer noted the 6-foot distancing rule has limited restaurants to about 60% of capacity, complicating dine-in services as many restaurants turned to curbside and delivery during the pandemic. Restaurants will still have leeway to decide whether to stick with the stricter safety measures once the rollback kicks in, she said.
“Slowly but surely, we have been able to expand to a more reasonable level,” Bremer said. “I’m sure that there will be many that still require the face coverings for people to come into their businesses. It’s their prerogative as a business to do that.”
Georgia Southern’s Fung said restaurants can take steps like installing plexiglass screens between customers and require masks to reduce risks of transmission, particularly as more infectious mutations of the virus take root in Georgia.
“I would highly recommend Georgians to put on face masks if they speak, especially in public or when they’re meeting with friends,” Fung said. “I understand why they want that to be relaxed … but people should remain vigilant. … The pathway forward is to get as many people fully vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
Local/state COVID cases
In Bulloch County, cases of COVID-19 continue on a downward trend that started in February. After recording only five new cases over the three-day Easter weekend, six cases were reported on Tuesday and Wednesday combined.
Bulloch now has a total of 5,172 confirmed cases since the pandemic began in March 2020. The Bulloch COVID cases have resulted in 62 confirmed deaths and 211 local residents being hospitalized since the pandemic began in March.
Easter Weekend also saw the state of Georgia recorded its fewest new cases over a three-day period since June 6-8 of 2020. New cases in Georgia did rise in the past two days with 1,003 cases on Tuesday and 991 on Wednesday. The state's total number of confirmed cases is now up to 858,268.
Also, after reporting just 34 deaths total due to COVID in the four days previously, 67 state residents died on Wednesday. Georgia’s death toll now stands at 16,827 since March 2020.
National COVID cases on the rise
While Georgia is one of 31 U.S. states reporting seven-day averages of fewer than 1,000 new daily cases, there were about 453,000 new cases in the country in the past seven days. And five states – New York, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey – reported nearly 198,000 of those cases.
In Florida, relaxed safeguards during a busy spring break season likely helped spread virus variants, said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. The state’s seven-day average of daily new infections has exceeded 5,400, an increase of 20% in the past two weeks.
According to statistics from the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, as of Wednesday afternoon, 558,956Americans had died from coronavirus. Also, Johns Hopkins reported the U.S. has had 30,907,352 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.
Public Safety/Emergency Management Agency Director Ted Wynn said East Georgia Regional Medical Center staff on Tuesday were caring for four COVID patients, with two patients on ventilators.
The Bulloch County Schools system reported five new cases last week, and a total of 621 COVID cases since classes started on Aug. 17. Schools are on Spring break this week.
Georgia Southern had 12 total cases reported March 29-April 4 – seven self-reported and five university- confirmed cases. GS reported 27 total cases for the week of March 22-28.
Of the cases reported last week, 10 were on the Statesboro campus and two on the Armstrong Savannah campus.
East Georgia State College has reported no new cases across its three campuses since March 22. The college has had a total of 157 cases across its three campuses since Aug. 17.
Ogeechee Technical College has not reported any news COVID cases since the week of March 8-14. Ogeechee Tech has had a total of 70 cases across its campuses since Aug. 17.
The Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this report.