Georgia Healthcare Faces a Winter of Uncertainty
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Georgia Healthcare Faces a Winter of Uncertainty

Emory Health director warns of challenges created by the pandemic and the cold and flu seasons.

Uncertainty about the future of the COVID virus may complicate health care.
Uncertainty about the future of the COVID virus may complicate health care.

With the official start of winter just around the corner and the COVID pandemic still a major threat to public health, doctors like Sharon Rabinovitz are concerned about the future.

Since 2018, Rabinovitz has been the executive director of the Emory University Student Health Services and an assistant vice president at Emory, responsible for the health and well-being of nearly 16,000 students.

In a state in which only about 50 percent of the residents have been fully vaccinated and the political leadership has successfully resisted compulsory government mandates to increase that statistic, the immediate outlook, is “uncertain,” according to Rabinovitz.

“I think Georgia is a microcosm of what’s happening now, nationally and globally, and the impact of that is it will take a lot longer to beat this pandemic,” she said. “And that is the frustrating part for all medical and public health professionals because we know what works to mitigate this. It’s much harder to do if we don’t have high levels of vaccination and mitigation strategies and public health measures in place.”

Emory’s Dr. Sharon Rabinovitz is responsible for the health and well-being of almost 16,000 students.

In recent weeks, new cases of the COVID-19 virus have increased, according to government statistics, from 95,000 cases a day to almost 119,000 cases nation wide during the first week in December.

Hospitalizations across the country are also up by 25 percent over what they were last month. In Georgia, during the same period, the number of reported cases was up 31 percent and hospitalizations were up 14 percent.

In all, about 800,000 Americans have died since the pandemic began in 2019.

On Dec. 2, in a speech at the National Institutes of Health, President Biden announced a program aimed at reducing these statistics during the winter months ahead. He called for the expanded use of at-home diagnostic tests, increased testing for international travelers and endorsed new efforts to encourage vaccines and booster shots.

“My plan I am announcing today pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19 and it’s a plan that I think should unite us,” Biden said. “I know COVID-19 has been very divisive in this country. It’s become a political issue, which is a sad, sad, commentary. It shouldn’t be.”

On Dec. 7, a federal judge in Augusta, Ga. temporarily blocked the Biden administration from enforcing an executive order that mandated COVID-19 vaccines for employees of federal contractors. The mandates were imposed in September to implement workplace health safety guidelines developed by a federal task force. The decision came after several contractors and seven states led by Republican governors — including Georgia — challenged the mandate.

But COVID infections have been difficult to control in the best of circumstances. In Minnesota, where 75 percent of the population has been vaccinated, hospital Intensive Care Units in early in December were at 98 percent capacity, the highest level yet during the pandemic.

At Emory, which resumed classes with personal attendance starting in August, students are required to be fully vaccinated, included for COVID. Masks are required at all times on campus. Still, according to Rabinovitz, since August, even with these strict measures in place, 514 students were reported to have contracted the virus. Now, we are faced with a new variant and all the implications that carries with it.

Health literacy can be an important tool in protecting our heath.

“We have one year of data of how COVID behaves during the winter and the data that we have from last year did not [factor in] vaccines or a new variable that we’ve added this year. So, with all that said, we have a lot of knowledge, and we also have a lot of uncertainty as to what this winter is going to look like.”

With holiday gatherings complicated by a reluctance to wear masks and what some have described as pandemic fatigue, the stage is set for the possible spread of the latest Omicron variant and the onset of the winter cold and flu season.

It’s a challenging time, but, as Rabinovitz reminds us, two years of living with the virus has also taught us some valuable lessons.

“We have never been so health-literate for infectious disease as we are now,” she points out. “We know the strategies to help keep us safe and healthy. We know that masks work. We know the importance of washing our hands frequently, getting vaccinated, getting the boosters, getting frequently tested. It will help us to control the spread of infections and manage our own safety. I think that managing our own safety is what it’s all about this year.”

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