Top Story Countdown: No. 2 - Vaccines, loans and stimulus aid pandemic recovery

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  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States

Dec. 31—Editor's note: The MDJ counts down the top 10 local stories of 2021 as determined by newsroom staff. Today's installment is No. 2.

Infections and deaths from the coronavirus reached new highs in January, and yet there seemed at that time to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines, though hard to find, were being distributed and President-elect Joe Biden was talking about another round of stimulus spending.

Today, vaccines are available to all who want them, and some economists are debating whether Biden had, perhaps, given Americans, American businesses and local governments more "relief" than was necessary after taking office this spring.

All told, the pandemic and infections and deaths never went away, but things were looking up — at least until the emergence of the omicron variant during the holiday season.

Just a year after the first round of vaccines were delivered in Georgia, omicron has broken pandemic records three times within the past week for Cobb; the county saw its highest-ever number of new COVID-19 cases Thursday, recording more than 1,700 new cases in a single day. Thursday was also a record-breaking day for Georgia, with more than 17,000 new cases in a single day.

What this means is unclear. Preliminary data suggests omicron, though more transmissible, is less severe than prior variants. Will the incredible surge in cases fill hospitals and morgues, as it did in January? Or are we facing something more like the flu? We're about to find out.

Public health officials continue to insist the best protection against the virus is vaccination. In March, Gov. Brian Kemp announced all Georgians could get vaccinated against the coronavirus; before, only those likeliest to catch the virus or fall seriously ill from it were eligible.

In the spring, millions of people were getting vaccinated and cases, hospitalizations and deaths hit their lowest point since the beginning of the pandemic. We'd won.

At least, that was how it felt at the time. A variant first detected in India, dubbed delta, spread more easily than those before it and tore through the unvaccinated population. At the same time, the vaccination campaign lagged, with substantial portions of Americans unwilling to "get jabbed."

Cases, hospitalizations and deaths shot up toward the end of summer. They dropped through the fall, particularly in Georgia. But the drop in cases was short-lived: omicron was first detected in South Africa just before Thanksgiving.

Today, about 53% of Georgians are fully vaccinated, per the Georgia DPH. In Cobb, the rate is 58%. Researchers have learned that protection from the vaccines wanes after four to six months, and COVID-19 boosters have been approved for almost all people who've been vaccinated.

More than 1,384,600 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Dec. 30, with more than 407,415 reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 26,358 Georgians.

Meanwhile, another $1.9 trillion in federal stimulus poured into the country, on top of the $3.1 Congress had approved in 2020. Enhanced unemployment benefits were extended through September, most Americans received a $1,400 check, local governments got $350 billion in aid and the Paycheck Protection Program continued to support small businesses around the country.

All this money has some economists claiming the government spent too much. Prices are rising, businesses are struggling to find workers, and Republicans are bashing Democrats for "paying people to stay home instead of work." Others say the pandemic is to blame for both issues.

Whatever the case, local governments now have a lot of money to spend.

Cobb County's government received more than $147 million in direct federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by Biden in March. The Cobb Board of Commissioners cashed a $73.8 million check from the federal government in June. The county will receive the remaining $73.8 million in June 2022. Cobb's six cities received a total of $56.5 million in federal funds, according to data from the House Oversight Committee.

The Board of Commissioners is mulling how best to spend that money. Earlier this year, it used millions in federal aid from prior rounds of stimulus to support county renters facing eviction.

The Cobb County School District, meanwhile, received $182 million from the most recent round of federal coronavirus relief, but has yet to announce how that money will be spent.

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