Georgia’s COVID-19 cases continue to inch upwards as the pandemic’s latest wave quietly persists in the background.  

State epidemiologist Dr. Cherie Drenzek said the real “magnitude” of the ongoing wave is likely higher than what is captured in public tallies because of the prevalence of at-home testing. (Credit: Ross Williams | Georgia Recorder)

Cases have increased by about 20% in the last week, and hospitalizations are also up about 17%, but both remain relatively low. 

“The numbers are dramatically lower than really they have almost ever been during the pandemic, prior to the delta wave as a matter of fact,” state epidemiologist Dr. Cherie Drenzek said Tuesday to the state Board of Public Health. “So, we’re about 88% lower in our hospitalization numbers than we were even during omicron.”

Nearly 5% of patients admitted to Georgia hospitals as of Tuesday were COVID-19 patients. That’s up slightly from 2.2% at the lowest point during the pandemic on April 26, according to the Georgia Hospital Association. Hospitalizations reached the highwater mark last September with 35.7% during the delta wave.

“This is a strong testament to really the impact of vaccination and boosters in preventing severe outcomes, no matter if we are facing a new subvariant, or a different variant even,” Drenzek said. “Vaccines are still holding very, very well against hospitalizations and deaths.”

The more low-key COVID-19 wave rolls on as the state’s public health officials juggle other infectious disease threats: the monkeypox virus outbreak, avian influenza and the mysterious appearance of hepatitis in young children.

But Drenzek said the real “magnitude” of the COVID-19 cases tied to the omicron subvariant is likely higher than what is captured in public tallies because of the prevalence of at-home testing.

The federal government and state public health officials have been promoting the over-the-counter antigen tests as a way of encouraging people to stay aware of their status and quarantine when necessary to slow the spread of the virus.

The Biden administration last month announced a third round of free COVID-19 test kits, providing a total of eight tests per household and bringing the total number of free federal tests made available per home through the program to 16. Those tests can be ordered here.

In the spring, the state also started using funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to distribute tens of thousands of at-home tests through local public health departments and districts, with plans to dispatch more later.

Drenzek said it remains to be seen whether the current wave is beginning to recede as the emergence of new variants — BA.4 and BA.5 — complicate the trendlines.

The state epidemiologist urged against complacency even as the pandemic drags into a third year, with more waves expected this year.

“This particular virus has shown us many, many times before that it’s capable of surprising us, changing,” Drenzek said. “No matter what, the normal and traditional prevention measures that we’ve talked about all along remain prudent and remain necessary.”

In Georgia, about 55% of the total population is fully vaccinated, which is lower than the national rate, and about 39% of the state’s residents have received the first booster.

The CDC recommends a second booster for those 12 and older who are immunocompromised and anyone over the age of 50, if at least four months have passed since receiving the first booster.

This story comes to Reporter Newspapers + Atlanta Intown through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending.