North Georgia is in the eighth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, which will bring new challenges to holiday gatherings this year.
Dr. John Delzell, a COVID-19 incident commander with the Northeast Georgia Health System, and Dr. Zachary Taylor, health director for District 2 of the Georgia Department of Public Health, offered some advice during a virtual event Tuesday, Nov. 10 about how to celebrate safely.
As of Wednesday, Dawson County had seen 953 COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. NGHS was treating 116 patients at its facilities Tuesday, according to its website. Two weeks before, on Oct. 27, NGHS had been treating 85 COVID-19 patients.
Here are a few takeaways from Tuesday’s talk with Delzell and Taylor.
Wear a mask indoors and distance
“The more you wear a mask, the better,” Delzell said. “It’s about decreasing the risk. You’re never eliminating the risk of transmission. … If you take your mask off to take a drink out of your coffee cup and then put your mask back on, you’re decreasing the risk. There’s just less opportunity for spread there.”
People should wear masks if they stop along the way on a road trip such as at a gas station, Delzell said.
And in addition to wearing a mask, limiting the size of gatherings is important, Taylor said.
“The smaller you can keep a gathering, the better,” Taylor said. “... If your family is anything like my family, everybody ends up in the kitchen at some point. So within that small room, you may have everyone crowded together. That doesn’t lend itself to social distancing, so to the extent that people can sort of spread out within the house and stay out of the kitchen unless you’re cooking. Wear the mask when you can and take it off when you’re eating. Wear it the rest of the time and you will reduce the risk.”
Taylor recommended that one person serve the plates one at a time, as opposed to a buffet, where everyone would touch the same utensils.
“That’s different, I know, than what we’re used to at Thanksgiving,” Taylor said. “I think people just need to do what they can to prevent transmission within their family.”
Gather outside if possible
“The greater the air circulation, the more dispersed if someone is infected,” Taylor said, although he added that weather could affect plans to host a gathering outside.
Being outdoors not only allows for more air circulation but can help with distancing, Taylor said.
“If you have the ability to gather outside with your family, that would be much more ideal instead of 10 people in a small dining area sitting right next to each other,” he said.
Assess your risk
Delzell said a risk assessment calculator developed by Georgia Tech could be a useful resource as people make holiday plans. The tool estimates that an event of 10 people in Hall County would have an 11% chance of at least one COVID-19 positive person being there, for example. If the event size increases to 25, the risk goes up to 25%, according to the tool.
Delzell and Taylor said people should avoid gatherings if they are showing symptoms of COVID-19, which include loss of taste or smell, fever, cough, shortness of breath and fatigue.
“We need to protect the most vulnerable people in our population who are at greatest risk for severe disease, and that includes the elderly population. It includes people with medical conditions that put them at greater risk,” Taylor said.
Although people can spread the virus without showing symptoms themselves, people should be sure to avoid contact with others if they are symptomatic, Delzell said.
“What we’ve seen over time is there have been times when people had symptoms and they knowingly continued to do what it is they wanted to do,” Delzell said. “I think that’s very irresponsible, but you see it over and over and over again.”
But everyone getting tested for COVID-19 before the gathering cannot guarantee safety, Taylor said.
“The test is simply a point in time. So if you have a test two days before you gather and it’s negative, that doesn’t mean that you haven’t been infected within the two days following your test,” he said. “It may give you a false sense of security.”
Also, just because someone had COVID-19 previously does not mean they are immune to contracting it again. Other coronaviruses do not provide people with lifelong immunity, Taylor said. COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus.
“We would not consider, at least for public health measures, the antibody test in making a determination about whether an exposed person has to quarantine or not,” Taylor said.
Delzell said NGHS has also found that the antibody test is not a strong indicator of when someone got infected and how contagious they could be.
Vaccine could come in spring 2021
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday a COVID-19 vaccine could likely be widely available by April 2021. His prediction comes as drugmaker Pfizer announced that its vaccine has been highly effective in trials.
Delzell and Taylor also said they were hopeful a vaccine could be available in early 2021.
“An effective vaccine is going to be the thing that helps us really get past this,” Delzell said. “... The (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has to get all the safety data on a vaccine because the worst thing would be for us to promote out and put a vaccine out there that was really not the right vaccine. I think they’re going to do a good job of looking at the safety and making sure that the data supports it.”
Delzell said NGHS has been preparing for a vaccine for months, and the process of storing it and distributing it is “going to be monumental.”
Taylor said the vaccine, which could possibly be available in December, would not be available to everyone at first. The general population may be able to get the vaccine in spring or summer 2021, he said.
“There will be priority groups that we will go through to vaccinate before we get to the general population,” Taylor said. “Our first priority will be our health care workers. We want to protect them. It will be our first responders — our police, our fire, our (emergency medical services) that we depend upon. Then, we’ll also want to protect our nursing homes.”
Then, elderly patients and infrastructure workers such as those involved in food production would be vaccinated, Taylor said.
The Associated Press contributed.