The number of confirmed COVID deaths in Georgia has now surpassed 20,000, state officials said Friday.

This story also appeared in Georgia Health News

In addition, there are more than 3,000 “probable’’ deaths from COVID, according to the state Public Health website.

Georgia’s first confirmed COVID death was in March 2020.

“It is tragic but not surprising that we have surpassed this grim milestone of 20,000 COVID deaths in our state,” Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said in a statement.

She added that 97 percent of the COVID deaths since vaccines became available have been in unvaccinated patients. “These deaths are preventable,” she said.

Hospitals in the state are overwhelmed with COVID patients, with the vast majority being unvaccinated. Currently, just 44 percent of Georgia residents are fully vaccinated.

One in three hospital patients have COVID and 95 percent of ICU beds across Georgia are filled, state figures showed Friday.

At the same time, hospital officials are reporting shortages of medical workers and are voicing strong concerns about what could happen over the next two weeks if cases continue to increase. The surge in COVID cases is driven by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

The state reported more than 12,000 new cases Friday, along with 106 COVID deaths.

Children are being hit harder in this COVID surge than during the previous three.

Since the start of the new school year, 14 metro Atlanta school districts have recorded 18,548 COVID-19 cases, the AJC reported. That data is as of Aug. 27. COVID cases among children are now at their highest point during the pandemic.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey

A letter signed by health care leaders in northwest Georgia urged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and take precautions to stem the spread of the virus.

“We need your help like never before,’’ said the letter, dated Friday. “The pandemic — its current surge driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant — continues to spread throughout Northwest Georgia and is quickly becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Most new cases, hospitalizations and people in our critical care units on ventilators and advanced oxygen support are unvaccinated,” the letter stated.

Northeast Georgia Health System, based in Gainesville, was treating 317 COVID patients as of Friday, an increase of 51 in a week.

The percentage of ventilators in use was 78%, the highest it has been since the pandemic began. The highest peak of patients in the pandemic was 355 in January, which Northeast Georgia expects to pass this month.

And in Albany in southwest Georgia, Phoebe Putney Health System warned against people taking an anti-parasite medication to prevent or treat COVID.

“As we continue to battle COVID, we don’t need the added challenge of treating people who have unintentionally harmed themselves by taking medications that clearly have warnings against their use for COVID-19,” said Dr. Dianna Grant, Phoebe Putney’s chief medical officer.

Ivermectin is a prescription medication. But some people are acquiring it without prescriptions by buying versions of the drug used to treat parasitic infections in livestock.

“We know some physicians in our region have prescribed ivermectin for COVID patients, but the drug is not authorized for that use, and despite claims you may read on the Internet, high-quality research thus far has not demonstrated effectiveness in treating COVID-19,” Grant said.

This story is available through a news partnership with Georgia Health News.

Andy Miller, Senior Editor for Kaiser Family Foundation Health News, has been a health care journalist for 29 years. Miller graduated from Duke in 1973 and received a master’s in education from Duke...

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