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U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visits Gwinnett as concerns linger about COVID vaccinations, rising case numbers

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra pointed to the latest rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations Monday and said it is evidence of the need for people to get vaccinated against the disease if they haven’t done so already.

Becerra participated in a 30-minute roundtable discussion that U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Ga., hosted at the Norcross Cultural Arts Center Monday. The meeting gave Becerra a chance to speak, in person, with local health officials and groups that have been trying to work on outreach to get people vaccinated against COVID-19.

“In so many ways, this has become the pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Becerra told the Daily Post after the roundtable. “Those who can, by chance, still get infected who have been fully vaccinated usually not only survive, not only don’t go to the hospital, but continue forward.”

Becerra’s visit to metro Atlanta to talk about COVID-19 and other issues came on the same day that one of the three health systems that serves Gwinnettians announced it has seen its highest pandemic-related hospitalizations since February.

Gainesville-based Northeast Georgia Health System announced Monday that COVID-positive cases in its hospitals, including the Braselton campus on the Hall-Gwinnett line, jumped from 20 to 110 in the last two weeks. Hospital system officials said the majority of those cases — 85% to be exact — are unvaccinated.

“Our staff that are in support roles are still recovering from the mental and emotional strain of the past 18 months,” Northeast Georgia Health System Executive Director of Medical Nursing Elizabeth Larkins said. “Many of them tell me they don’t know if they can take another surge.

“We’re already seeing many workers make the difficult decision to leave healthcare either because of their own health, mental and emotional health, or because they just don’t think they can do it, and the new people we’re seeing entering these healthcare professions are burning out quickly.

“If you are not concerned for yourself enough to get the vaccine, I’m asking for you to please do it for the people in your life who you love. Do it for our healthcare workers. Do it for your community.”

Dr. Audrey Arona, the director of the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health District, said other hospital systems across the three-county district are seeing similar trends as the Delta variant spurs a new wave of rising cases and hospitalizations.

A common trend, according to Arona, is that the hospital systems are reporting that many of the new COVID hospitalizations are people who did not get one of the vaccines available.

“All of our hospitals have reported to me that they’re seeing rising hospitalizations, increased ICU bed use and also more ventilator use,” Arona said. “When I ask them (about hospitalization) — like for instance in Piedmont Newton (at) 100% are unvaccinated people that they’ve admitted in the past few weeks.

“The Piedmont system in general reports 98% (unvaccinated) and we’re seeing the same thing in the Northside hospitals too: that the majority are unvaccinated.”

Arona said Gwinnett County’s fully vaccinated rate, as of last Friday, was 46% while 51% of the county’s residents had received at least one vaccine shot.

Arona also said the health department is seeing a COVID positivity rate of about 13% right now. It has been fluctuating between 11% and 13% lately, she said.

That is a sharp increase from numbers she said health officials were seeing earlier this summer.

“Six weeks ago now, it was 4.4%,” Arona said.

Arona said a trend that is showing up among new cases in Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties is that there is a rise in the number of young people getting the disease.

“I guess about 10 days ago, 30 to 39 year olds — there were more of that age group in the hospital than there were 80-year-old,” Arona said.

Becerra said people who have gotten vaccinated, or are planning to get vaccinated, should get involved in getting the word out about the need for people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccines are available to anyone who is 12 or older and health departments and health providers can vaccinate people.

“What we need to do is get all of our loved ones and our neighbors to get vaccinated because we shouldn’t have to wear masks if we’re all vaccinated, we shouldn’t have to worry about social distancing if we all do what we know is the safest thing for us,” the HHS secretary said.

“And, hopefully we won’t lose any more lives because people aren’t vaccinated. It’s just the right thing to do. It’s time.”

Arona said the vaccine is readily available in Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties to residents who want it.

The health district is still operating a mass vaccination site in the former Sears at Gwinnett Place Mall, but — in a big change from earlier this year — the health district director said residents no longer need to make an appointment to get the vaccine.

“We’re trying to get the message out that you don’t need an appointment, you can walk in at any time,” Arona said. “We’ll vaccinate anyone that’s human. You don’t have to be a Georgia resident. You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen. Any human can walk in and get vaccinated.”

Bourdeaux said the message about the benefits of vaccination need to be repeated often to encourage more people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Health officials are conceding that vaccination will not necessarily prevent a person from getting COVID, but they add it will lessen the disease’s impact on the body.

“We just have to keep saying ‘Get vaccinated’ over and over and over again,” Bourdeaux said. “It’s not about trying to take away your freedom. It’s just trying to make sure that you are healthy and your family is healthy. A lot of life is just consistency and persistence.”

But, the congresswoman is not just relying on messaging. She is also working on access.

Bourdeaux’s office is planning to provide Gwinnettians and residents of other counties access to vaccines at a food drive and vaccination event her office will hold from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturday at Mount Salem Baptist Church, which is located at 4700 Church St., in Lilburn.

“We continue to try to look for every possible angle to do outreach to the community to encourage people to get vaccinated,” the congresswoman said.

Buford High School twins on a mission to raise awareness among teens, parents of the dangers of vaping

For most freshmen, the first year of high school is usually filled with getting acclimated to a new school and the challenges and opportunities that presents.

Fraternal twins Juan and Marco Borrego took a different approach when they were freshmen at Buford High School three years ago, however.

As the pair, now seniors, were beginning their high school careers, they decided to start an organization to fight the use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products used by their peers.

“As rising freshmen, during the first few months of high school, we saw the negative impact that e-cigarettes really had on the student body, even the community as a whole,” Juan Borrego said. “Kids were sneaking it into class, they’d go into bathrooms to use (them) because they were so addicted. Kids had to take multiple puffs during class or go to the bathroom to use it if they were too scared to get caught in class.

“We were seeing how much of an impact it was having on their own lives so we educated ourselves (and) did research.”

The Borrego brothers took action by creating the Vaping-Attention to Prevention, or VA2P, club at Buford High School to raise awareness among their classmates about the dangers of e-cigarette use. The group, which had about 15 members at Buford before the COVID-19 pandemic played havoc on the school environment, has already spun off chapters at other schools as the brothers look to spread the organization across the U.S.

One of those other schools is the University of North Georgia. The UNG chapter, which was launched earlier this year, was a milestone for the group. because it is the organization’s first college chapter.

“Two (VA2P) ambassadors that graduated from high school last year went to UNG and they were able to make their own club at UNG and they’ve been very successful in that,” Juan said.

And, the brothers haven’t stopped at just getting involved in their schools and encouraging other kids to start their own efforts at other schools. They’ve also taken their message to the State Capitol in Atlanta and the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

“Outside of education, we do a lot of advocacy,” Marco Borrego said. “We got to testify about Senate Bill 298 as sophomores (in January 2020) and also got to speak with Gov. Brian Kemp about the issues surrounding e-cigarettes.”

Senate Bill 298 was introduced by former Sen. Renee Unterman during the 2019-2020 legislative term to raise the legal age to purchase vaping products in Georgia from 18 to 21.

The brothers have also worked with the American Heart Association and other nonprofits to raise awareness about health issues. That took them to Capitol Hill in Washington, where they met with former U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue as well as former U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall.

They also worked with Gwinnett-based GUIDE Inc. this summer as interns.

The brothers also presented their information at the Daily Post’s Health Fair and All About Kids Expo at Rhodes Jordan Park this past weekend. They talked to parents about the ways in which companies that had traditionally made more conventional nicotine cigarettes were producing e-cigarettes under different brand names, and producing flavors that are intended to appeal to a younger target audience. They also pointed out that while e-cigarettes are not traditional cigarettes, they still contain nicotine.

“A lot of teens and young adults just really don’t have the knowledge or haven’t been told the real dangers of e-cigarettes,” Juan Borrego said. “They can increase the risk of developing coronary artery disease. It’s a really dangerous product and many kids or teens have this idea in their head that it’s just water vapor and once they get hooked on it, once they find the flavor they like, they become life-long customers and it becomes hard to break that cycle.

“And, that’s what these e-cigarette companies are trying to do, kind of taking the tactics of the cigarette industry of old and kind of bringing it to a new audience, a younger audience.”

Marco added, “We have to focus the e-cigarette companies manipulating these teens by continuously advertising and focusing on the youth population. With that, they are trying to hook an entire generation of customers.”

Marco Borrego said the products can have a detrimental effect on the health of a person who uses them, just as traditional nicotine cigarettes have their own negative health impacts. He recalled seeing classmates who used vaping products suffer in withdrawal after they stopped using e-cigarettes and other vaping products.

“These kids, if they got caught with their vapes, the following week after they got caught, they would pass out in class because the addiction was so strong, the withdrawal from the nicotine,” Marco said. “The nicotine in these e-cigarettes is absolutely insane.

“I mean, when it first started, I knew some freshmen and sophomores who would smoke one to two packs a day, which is the equivalent of one two packs of cigarettes a day. The fact that they had to quit so quickly after getting caught, the withdrawal was so strong that they couldn’t handle it in school.”

Seeing their classmates struggle not only inspired the 17-year-old brothers to create Vaping-Attention to Prevention, but also motivated them to keep going throughout their time at Buford.

The club began using the nicotine industry’s own tool — marketing — against e-cigarettes by creating an anti-vaping marketing campaign aimed at students at Buford.

With a new school year starting in Buford and Gwinnett County Public Schools this week, the brothers are looking to continue their work to fight teen vaping.

“We’re also trying to do our own research regarding e-cigarettes because that’s kind of the cornerstone of our non-profit organization: education, advocacy and research,” Juan Borrego said. “Those are the three main building blocks we’re trying to build off of.

“Also, we’re trying to do as much advocacy as possible. Right now, we’re campaigning for smoke free Gwinnett, which is a smoke-free ordinance for Gwinnett County trying to protect teens and young adults with a smoke free workplace.”

Northside Hospital, UnitedHealthcare renew contract, restoring access to Northside's Gwinnett and Duluth hospitals

Northside Hospital health care system and UnitedHealthcare announced Monday that they have renewed their contract.

The announcement ensures UnitedHealthcare members enrolled in employer-sponsored, individual and Medicare Advantage plans will have uninterrupted access to care at Northside’s Atlanta, Cherokee and Forsyth hospitals.

Northside officials said the multi-year agreement also restores access to Northside’s Gwinnett and Duluth hospitals as well as the Glancy Rehabilitation Center and Northside Gwinnett Extended Care Center for people enrolled in employer-sponsored and individual plans, effective Aug. 1. The agreement brings the Gwinnett hospitals back into the insurer’s fold after being out of network for five months.

All four Gwinnett facilities have also joined the network for UnitedHealthcare’s Medicare Advantage plans, including the UnitedHealthcare Group Medicare Advantage National PPO plan.

UnitedHealthcare members will have continued access to Northside’s physicians and outpatient facilities.

“Our more than 30-year partnership with UnitedHealthcare was a significant factor in our successful renewal. Our many years of commitment to patient care directed both of us throughout this process,” Scott Wade, vice president of Northside Hospital, said. “We are pleased that we have come to an agreement that provides the necessary resources for Northside to deliver the standard of care that is consistent with our reputation in the communities we serve.

“We look forward to continuing to provide Northside patients and UnitedHealthcare members the best possible health care experiences.”

Said Junior Harewood, CEO of UnitedHealthcare in Georgia: “Our top priority throughout our negotiations with Northside was to ensure the people we’re honored to serve have continued access to quality care at affordable, sustainable rates, and the renewal of our longstanding relationship accomplishes that goal. We appreciate Northside’s collaboration in achieving this outcome.”

In Georgia, UnitedHealthcare serves nearly 1.2 million people enrolled in employer-sponsored, individual, Medicare and Medicaid plans through a network of 145 hospitals and more than 29,000 physicians and other care providers.

Gwinnett County Public Schools, local health department working to increase COVID vaccinations in school communities

There are about 98,000 students in Gwinnett County Public Schools who are old enough to be eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health Departments Director Dr. Audrey Arona is concerned that many of them may not be vaccinated.

While Arona conceded that students who are 12 or older may have gotten vaccinated by their family doctor or a clinic instead of the health department, she said the number of students who did go to the health department is a tiny fraction of the eligible student population.

“We’re not vaccinating as many students as we’d like,” Arona said. “We’d like all 98,000 eligible students — there are 98,000 12 years and up students that are eligible just in Gwinnett County Public Schools.

“We’ve done close to 500. It’s not that much, right? And, that’s what we’ve done, that’s what the health department’s done, so remember that other student (could have been vaccinated elsewhere), but that’s what we’ve done through the summer.”

The local health department is working with Gwinnett County Public Schools, which is the largest school district in both Gwinnett County and Georgia, to boost vaccination levels among students and educators.

District officials announced the vaccination clinics along with their decision to re-instate a mask mandate for all students for the 2021-2022 school year last week.

The clinics will be offered from 3 until 7 p.m. on Wednesdays through the end of August at Discovery High School, which is located at 1335 Old Norcross Road in Lawrenceville.

Anyone who is 12 or older is eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We’re been, periodically, at different high schools throughout the summer,” said Arona, who added that the Discovery site will be a static site.

The health department is also continues to operate its mass vaccination site in the former Sears at Gwinnett Place Mall, and that site is accepting walk-ins. Appointments are no longer needed at that site.

Overall, Arona said 51% of Gwinnett County residents have received at least one vaccine dose and 46% of the county’s residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But the rise of the Delta variant has given officials cause for concern.

Although the variant can infect people who have been fully vaccinated, several health officials have said its effects are far worse for people who are unvaccinated. That was a key reason why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its face mask guidelines to encourage people wear masks regardless of whether they have been vaccinated, which in turn prompted the new mandate in GCPS.

But, Arona said getting more students vaccinated is a good long-term solution to reducing the spread of the variant and the risks of serious illness.

“Now that school is going back, we’re really trying to get as many of our students vaccinated as possible, that are eligible, because it’s just going to make the school year better,” Arona said. “The more people we get vaccinated, the less variants we’ll have and the less transmission we’ll have.”