The rate of COVID-19 infection in one of Georgia’s fastest-growing counties may be significantly lower than some other areas of the country, according to an antibody testing study by researchers at the Medical College of Georgia and Augusta University Health.
An analysis of the blood of some 989 people employed by Columbia County found that 2.83% had been infected with SARS-CoV-2, compared to cities like New York and Boston, which have reported a 10-20% rate of infectivity through similar studies.
“We have known for some time that COVID-19 does not affect all communities the same,” said Dr. Phillip Coule, vice president and chief medical officer for AU Health.
On the basis of that finding, researchers estimate that approximately 4,400 of Columbia County’s 156,714 residents were previously infected with the virus at the time the specimens were collected in late May and early June.
“This study underscores the importance of local community decisions, not one-size-fits-all approaches to controlling COVID-19 outbreaks,” said Dr. Jose Vazquez, chief of infectious diseases at MCG. “In general, the overwhelming majority of the population do not have any significant risk of dying from COVID-19. We do know that the way forward is by protecting the older population and those at risk so we can eliminate infection in this high-risk group and prevent hospital overcrowding. That said, it would still seem reasonable to follow social distancing and careful hand and facial hygiene.”
While the data is promising for Columbia County, it does point to a significant gap in publicly reported data, with the county’s rate of infectivity proving to be significantly higher than the 0.02% of Columbia County residents who had tested positive for the virus through nasopharyngeal specimen collection during the same period.
Of the employee groups tested, including educators and first responders, high school teachers had the highest rate of antibodies at 4.74%. Middle and elementary school teachers were next at 3.08% and 1.79%, respectively, followed by sheriff’s deputies and first responders at 1.79%.
“I am extremely appreciative of our partnership with AU Health and their quick turnaround in providing us the data from the antibody study,” said Columbia County Commission Chairman Doug Duncan. “It is awesome to be able to test approximately 1,000 first responders and educators in-house. AU Health is continuing to lead the way in our community and state.”
Duncan continued, “The low infection and mortality rates confirm that the decisions made to bend the curve were the right path for Columbia County. It also implies those in the high-risk categories should continue to take every conceivable precaution to prevent being infected by the virus.”
AU Health announced its partnership with the Columbia County Commission in May for antibody testing of county employees to determine when the virus may have first established itself in the area. The blood tests were made available on a volunteer basis after the health system announced the development of one of the only tests in the area highly specific to SARS-CoV-2.
Gov. Brian Kemp visited the testing site, located at Evans High School, in early June and lauded the health system’s efforts to help county leaders understand how the virus had impacted their community so they could make plans for the safe reopening of businesses and government operations.
From day one, the county has been following data and making their decisions based on what has been made available to them. The county will use the data from the study to help them make future decisions on any closures, guidelines and recommendations.