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Hindsight 2021: How coronavirus shaped Georgia for a second year

It was supposed to be the year the world kicked COVID-19 to the curb. It was supposed to be a rebound from the disaster of the plague year that was 2020.

But 2021 was not a silver bullet of change, but rather a continuation of the plague year that preceded it. In 2021, the nation faced a labor shortage, supply line failures, rising inflation, and increased spread of the coronavirus. There were technological advancements and encouraging developments, but 2021 was another year overshadowed by a global pandemic.

In the coming days, The Georgia Sun will look back on the top 21 news stories that impacted the Peach State in 2021 — many of them shaped by the pandemic that raged in the background — and often the foreground — of our lives this year.

Today, we will start with the virus that shaped our history for the second year running. Note that this review is light on information about the coronavirus vaccine, because the vaccine and its rollout in Georgia will be detailed in a later article.

Coronavirus: Year 2

Coronavirus Outbreak
Photo by lightsource on Deposit Photos

Regardless of the political battles surrounding the virus, the conspiracy theories and misinformation about its existence and severity, you can’t miss its influence and effect on society. Events were canceled, classes and meetings were virtual, photos show masks and social distancing and any plans — from the smallest of meetings to the largest of gatherings — had to take the spread of the virus into account.

The Department of Public Health’s graph of new coronavirus cases for the year, resembles The Scream Machine at Six Flags, and the year was punctuated by the constant rising and falling of the spread of the virus. The year began with a coronavirus surge that saw Georgia’s ICU beds maxed out with severely ill Georgians. At the beginning of the year, The World Congress center had just been reactivated to deal with a new surge.

January was a rough start in relation to the virus, with increasing numbers, deaths, and hospitalizations each day in early January.

In early January, Henry County Deputy Nicholas Howell was one of the year’s first high-profile deaths from the virus that would claim thousands of lives in Georgia this year. A look through this year’s obituaries will yield a troubling number of Georgians who died from coronavirus or, its common colloquialism “after a brief illness.”

By January 5, the Georgia Department of Public Health had announced that a new, more contagious coronavirus variant had made its way to Georgia. That variant was called B..1.1.7 at the time, but was later dubbed the Alpha variant, when the World Health Organization began using new naming conventions for variants in May.

By January 8, the Cherokee County School District had announced schools in the county were closing for 10 days due to a coronavirus surge among staff. In the background to all of this, the vaccine was being rolled out slowly in Georgia.

In mid-January, Georgia had earned the designation of worst-in-the nation for its vaccination rollout.

By January 15, Georgia had recorded the most single-day deaths from the virus, with 159 people dying from the virus in one day. Just three days later, cases began to decline in the state.

By April, new cases of the virus had declined enough that Gov. Brian Kemp rolled back some of the restrictions placed on gatherings.

In late July, the Delta variant brought a new surge of cases and hospitalizations to Georgia. In response to the surge, mask mandates and closures returned in several cities and counties throughout the state. As the Delta variant raged primarily among the unvaccinated, health care workers reported being exhausted as increasing hospitalizations strained Georgia’s health system, pushing it to its limit.

Continuing the war over mask mandates that began in 2020, in August, Kemp signed an executive order banning local mask mandates that had been reinstated by some local governments.

At the beginning of the school year, Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods announced that he had to quarantine due to the coronavirus and shared his experience with having the virus.

On August 30, Kemp committed 2,500 National Guard troops to Georgia hospitals to help fight the coronavirus surge. The next day, Georgia broke its record for coronavirus hospitalizations.

In September, a student at Coosa High School in Floyd County died, shocking the community and the entire state. The student’s death served as a bleak reminder that, while rare, children could fall victim to COVID-19.

As the Delta variant continued to take its toll, Georgia passed a grim milestone in early September, marking 20,000 total deaths from the virus.

By Sept. 9, Grady Memorial Hospital announced it was suspending all non-essential procedures due to the new surge in hospitalizations. The next day, in response to President Joe Biden mandating vaccines, Kemp threatened to sue, beginning a chain of legal challenges in Georgia to federal vaccine mandates.

By mid-October, more than 50% of Georgians had been vaccinated and cases of COVID-19 began to decline. Fulton County Schools made masks optional in response to the declining numbers.

Just as the case-numbers from Delta started showing declines, the Omicron variant hit Georgia just two months later. Earlier this month, health department officials announced the first case of the Omicron variant in Georgia. The Omicron spike has been fast and drastic. Since Dec. 3, when the first Georgia case of the variant was announced, the state has gone from an average of 1,129 daily cases to 4,070 new cases per day on Dec. 22.

On a more personal note, thousands of Georgians found their holiday plans canceled or changed by the sudden rise in new cases as family members quarantined and isolated.

As the year ends it is obvious that the effects of the Omicron variant will dominate headlines in January and the coronavirus will serve as the backdrop of history for at least the first part of 2021.

HOW TO GET VACCINATED: COVID-19 has killed more than 20,000 Georgia residents. Don’t let yourself or your loved ones die from a preventable virus. COVID vaccines are free and widely available statewide without insurance or identification. To find a vaccination location or to schedule an appointment, visit https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine.

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