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.

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I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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