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North Georgia Talks: Local doctors to discuss how to celebrate holidays in pandemic

COVID-19 brings new challenges to winter holidays, and local health experts have a few recommendations about gathering with family, traveling out of state and what precautions can be taken. 

The Times and its sister publications, the Dawson County News and Forsyth County News, are hosting a webinar Nov. 10 with two local physicians to discuss those recommendations ahead of Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

Dr. John Delzell of the Northeast Georgia Health System said Monday that people should be careful as they celebrate the holidays. 

“Remember that travel increases the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19, so staying home and sharing a small dinner with your household while connecting with extended family virtually is certainly the safest way to celebrate,” he said in a statement. “Outdoor gatherings are moderately risky, while shopping in crowded stores, running a race in person, attending crowded parades and attending large gatherings indoors with people outside your household carry the highest risk of exposure.” 

Delzell, a COVID-19 incident commander with NGHS, and Dr. Zachary Taylor of the Georgia Department of Public Health will join The Times Editor-in-Chief Shannon Casas and Dawson County News Editor Alexander Popp for the 5:30 p.m. discussion Nov. 10. Registration is now open for the Zoom event. 

People should take extra precautions when they are around people they have not been regularly seeing during the pandemic, according to Delzell. 

“People are going to need to think about wearing a mask inside,” Delzell said in September of planning for holiday gatherings. “If they’re meeting with groups that are not in their normal personal daily level and they have other family coming from other places, they’re going to have to really think about socially distancing and wearing masks in those settings, even when they’re inside and in their house.”   

Hall County is now in its eighth month of the pandemic. As of Monday, Nov. 2, the county had seen 10,871 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with 478 of those cases from within the past two weeks, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. From Oct. 5 to Oct. 19, the previous two-week period, Hall saw 538 new cases. 

Hall has had 5,268 cases per 100,000 people during the pandemic.  

Hospitalizations at NGHS have remained fairly steady in recent weeks. On Monday, NGHS was treating 81 COVID-19 patients at its facilities. Two weeks ago, on Oct. 19, that number was 85, and on Oct. 5, the system was treating 70 COVID-19 patients. As of Monday, 375 COVID-19 patients at NGHS had died since the beginning of the pandemic, and 2,665 had been discharged. 

As the community deals with both the COVID-19 pandemic and flu season, health care providers say precautions should continue to prevent the spread of both illnesses. 

“Our biggest concern is watching the increase in influenza cases while we still have a pretty steady volume of COVID patients,” Delzell told The Times in September.  

But Delzell said Monday that the use of masks, hand washing and social distancing, along with the use of vaccines, seemed to be keeping flu numbers down. 

“We typically see most flu cases in the months between September and March. In September 2020, our emergency departments and inpatient units at all Northeast Georgia Medical Center campuses diagnosed 11 cases of the flu,” he said in a statement. “In comparison, our total number of cases diagnosed in September last year was 209.” 

Northeast Georgia Physicians Group locations have given 17% more flu shots this year than last year, and the Longstreet Clinic has given 8% more for pediatric patients and 41% more to their adult patients, Delzell said. 

“While we’re very pleased to know that more members of our community are now protected, we know that 28% of the NGPG vaccine supply still remains and our other community partners still have supplies as well,” Delzell said. “We would like to see all those doses given to patients – hopefully before the holidays.” 

Flu activity is still minimal in Georgia as the season for that illness begins during this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

The department tracks “influenza-like illness,” which is a fever of at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit with a sore throat or cough. According to the department’s weekly report for Oct. 18-24, the most recent data available on Nov. 2, 1.8% of outpatient visits were for influenza-like illnesses. There had been no influenza deaths in the state, according to the report. 

DPH spokesman Dave Palmer said 1,457 people had gotten flu vaccines this year at the Hall County Health Department as of Oct. 31.