ALBANY — After a weekslong increase in COVID-19 cases that began after the Thanksgiving holiday and filled hospital intensive care units in Albany, there may be a glimmer of hope.
Admissions at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital have stabilized, and there has been a slight decrease in the rate of infection in the community as of this week. However, the medical community is not assured that the declines seen recently are the start of a long-term trend.
“We have seen a point that hopefully will be a downturn after the holiday increase,” Dr. James Black, Phoebe’s director of emergency medicine, said during a Thursday new conference with other medical professionals and community leaders.
In recent days, hospital admissions for COVID-19 patients have been steady at about 11 a day, but have spiked to as many as 18 or 19, Black said, and the hospital is still treating a large number of severely ill patients.
Some 235 Dougherty County residents who tested positive for the novel coronavirus have died since March 2020.
The next few days will give an indication of whether the improvement is a trend or just a temporary blip, Black said.
“Our (intensive care units) are still full and are still that way across the state and around the nation,” he said. “The rate of infection is quite high. It is not yet time to celebrate, and we have not seen the appreciable decrease we’d like to see.”
Black said he had seen two numbers given for deaths of U.S. service members during World War II — 405,399 and 407,316 — but when the news conference began at 2 p.m. the number of Americans who had died from COVID-19 was at about 406,000.
“No matter which figure you use, by the time this press conference ends, the total will be greater than World War II,” he said.
While Black said he understands the urge and reasoning many people made in deciding to attend holiday gatherings, Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said the result was the unfortunate spike in cases observed in the days and weeks after those gatherings.
“Large groups went to Christmas holiday (gatherings) and infected more people, more families, and then those people went out in the community,” Cohilas said. “It happens, but we have that … we have this trajectory that has been happening since the Christmas holidays.”
Another bright spot on the horizon is the availability of vaccines. During the first phase of vaccinations, the shots have been limited to health care workers and staff, first responders and people living in congregant living settings. In recent days, that group has been expanded to include those over age 65.
So far Phoebe has vaccinated about 10,000 people, and the Southwest District Public Health has vaccinated another 9,000 at health departments in the 14 counties it serves.
Black said he and some of his family members were vaccinated with no complications, and the two available vaccines are “no mystery oil.”
“There are no tracking devices,” he said, referring to one of the conspiracy theories that has been spread about the vaccines containing a microchip that can be used to track individuals.
Phoebe is waiting for additional doses, and the lack of additional supplies would be the only potential hold-up in getting more of the public protected with the shots.
“We haven’t heard when we will receive a second (delivery) of vaccines,” Dr. Kathy Hudson, Phoebe’s chief medical officer, said. “The main thing is, until we’re all able to be vaccinated we’re not going to get control of this deadly disease.”
Along with the post-holiday increase in infections and hospitalizations, deaths from COVID-19 have increased, Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said. Over the last six days, there have been 11 deaths of county residents.
“We’re still, I think, in trouble,” he said.
After the high point of 86 deaths in April 2020, the number of Dougherty County residents who succumbed dropped to 26 in May. After another peak of 15 deaths in August, the number of deaths had been in the range of four to six per month over much of the rest of that year until December, when the number rose to 14.
Through Thursday, there have been 21 deaths of county residents in 2021.
The coroner presented a slide showing the correct way to wear a face mask, pointing out that to be effective the wearer must cover the nose and mouth.
To those who say they can’t breathe while wearing a cloth mask, he gave this response: “I’d rather try to breathe through that mask than with COVID. You’ve gotta mask up.”