COVID cases in Carroll County have exploded in the past two weeks, reaching half the number of hospitalizations as there were at the peak of infections last year.

Dr. Laura Larson, director of infection prevention for Tanner Health System, said Wednesday that 41 COVID patients were hospitalized in Tanner facilities, whereas only three people were hospitalized on July 3, representing more than a 1,200% increase in just over four weeks.

“I believe we have the delta variant in our area,” Larson said.

The delta variant is a mutated form of the COVID virus that originally entered the U.S. in early 2020. Viruses are living organisms that infect a living host and often evolve, or mutate, over time to be resistant to whatever is in the host’s body that might kill it. The delta variant has proved to be more infectious than the original version.

Larson said Tanner physicians first noticed an uptick in COVID cases at the end of June. Since then, the rate of positive tests has doubled over the past month.

Larson said that 91% of those hospitalized are patients who have not received a COVID vaccination.

Hospitalizations represent the most serious of COVID cases. The Georgia Department of Health reported Thursday that since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, 7,676 people in the county have tested positive for COVID; that number is 46 higher than what was being reported on July 23 and 89 more cases than what was being reported on July 16.

Larson said that the highest number of people previously being hospitalized at one time was around 80, back during what had been considered the peak of the pandemic. Today, the hospitalizations are up to more than half that level. Larson said that the youngest person currently hospitalized is age 20; the oldest is 91.

She said that it is difficult to tell the extent to which the delta variant has entered the area because testing for that version is not done routinely in hospitals but at the laboratories of the state health department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It certainly looks like the vaccines are helping to prevent most of the hospitalizations and most of the deaths, based on the percentage of people [who] are admitted that are unvaccinated,” Larson said.

So long as the COVID virus is within the human population, experts say it will continue to spawn variants. The only known weapons to remove the virus from the population are the vaccines that have received emergency approval by the U.S.

While the vaccines were scarce and only available to select portions of the population a few months ago, they are readily available today. However, DPH figures showed Wednesday that only 28% of the county’s population have been fully vaccinated; 31% had received one dose of the two-dose vaccines.

On Wednesday, according to press reports, the CDC changed its recommendations for mask-wearing due to the agency’s concern over the delta variant. Experts with the federal health authority are now urging vaccinated people to resume wearing masks while indoors in public spaces, especially in areas with high or substantial COVID transmission rates.

DPH data shows that, as of the week ending July 23, Carroll County was among those counties in the state designated as “emerging counties of interest.” In fact, Carroll is surrounded by counties with the same designation.

To be an emerging county means that there was a 5% increase in COVID syndrome and more than 5% increase in cases, or a 25% increase in cases and more than 10 cases in the most recent week.

Last year, as the pandemic reached Carroll County, health experts requested that local governments order residents to shelter in place as a means of controlling the spread of the virus. No such plans are being contemplated during the current upsurge in the county.

Larson said that there have been meetings between the Carroll County Board of Health with board members from both the Carrollton and Carroll County school systems. As the date nears for the return of classes, both school systems are maintaining a mask-optional policy.

“We want this to be a collaborative effort,” Larson said, “But it’s very hard because you look at Carroll County [and] we’re one of the lowest counties vaccinated in the state. And certainly, Georgia is not one of the highest states vaccinated in the United States.”

Larson recommended that people follow the CDC’s advice on mask-wearing, noting that wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and proper hand hygiene is “so basic, but so powerful for helping prevent transmission of disease.”

During the initial surge of the pandemic, Tanner was caught short of supplies and some facilities, but that is no longer the case, Larson said.

Hospital staff now have a good supply of personal protective equipment, and now has an entire ward designed to prevent the airborne spread of the virus, she said.