Georgia State’s medical director explains Phase 1A plans

Pharmacist preps COVID-19 vaccine. Photo courtesy of Unsplash

As Fulton County’s COVID-19 cases exceed 80,000, Georgia State students should be aware of helpful and accessible resources to do their part in minimizing virus spread. These resources include multiple testing sites across campuses and COVID-19 vaccinations for students who meet eligibility requirements.

Georgia State’s COVID-19 testing methods, availability and scheduling process evolved since the university began offering tests in August 2020. Previously, Georgia State only offered testing via nasal swab, and they now offer less invasive saliva tests. In the past, saliva tests were less accurate than nasal swab tests, but now their accuracy rates are almost equal.

Last semester, students had to schedule an appointment through the Student Health Patient Portal to receive a test. Now, students can walk into any campus testing facility to get tested for COVID-19.

Georgia State offers PCR testing, which is considered the “gold standard” of COVID-19 testing. PCR tests detect genetic material specific to the virus, but not all COVID-19 tests are PCR tests.

“If it’s a rapid test, it’s not a PCR test,” Dr. Ijeoma Azonobi, Georgia State’s student health clinic director, said. “Be sure to ask what kind of test you are receiving.”

PCR test results take hours, and sometimes days, to process. 

There are two testing sites on the Atlanta campus for all staff and students. Testing is also available once a week in each residence hall. Every Perimeter campus has one testing site.

Before receiving a saliva test, the student must not eat, drink or smoke anything for 30 minutes prior. But it is advised to hydrate as much as possible before the 30 minute fasting period to facilitate saliva production.

Luckily, saliva tests are more accurate and require less saliva than they did in their infancy. 

Upon arrival at the testing site, a nurse will guide the student to a socially distanced seat with a saliva test kit. The equipment contains a QR code that will prompt the student to fill out personal information and whether they’ve experienced any COVID-19-related symptoms. Then, spit in the tube to the fill line, replace the tube cap and mix the spit in the tube with a liquid.

Once the sample is thoroughly mixed, the student will place the kit in a biohazard envelope that the nurse will send to a lab.

Georgia State recommends every student on campus to receive a COVID-19 test every week, even in the absence of symptoms.

“Don’t let my tests sit there and rot,” Dr. Azonobi said. “Please use the tests; we encourage people to get tested. Just walk in, show up and get your test done.”

Though mask-wearing, hand washing and social distancing are the foundation of limiting virus spread, Azonobi explained that those methods do not fully protect someone from contracting COVID-19.

“None of those are 100%. They’re very good, but they’re not 100%,” Dr. Azonobi said. “Even if people are checking all the boxes, it’s still possible for them to get the disease. As we know, the rates of COVID[-19] have been so high recently, the estimates of how many people actually have the infection are really high, which is why everyone should get tested.

Dr. Azonobi explained Georgia State’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, vaccine side effects, Georgia State community members who qualify for a vaccine right now and when the rest of the Georgia State community can anticipate receiving a vaccine.

Georgia is following a vaccine plan that occurs in phases, per the Georgia Department of Public Health. Georgia State is only authorized to distribute vaccines to its community, faculty, staff and enrolled students, based on this plan. 

Right now, phase 1A+ is in effect, meaning only first responders, healthcare workers, adults 65 and older and long-term care residents and staff can receive a vaccine.

“Because Georgia is only in Phase 1A+, we can only vaccinate those in our community who fall within phase 1A+,” Azonobi said. “For example, if you are a police officer who takes classes at Georgia State, you can get vaccinated.”

Georgia State’s Health Clinic sent targeted emails to those who currently qualify to receive a vaccine. They included information about where to get vaccinated, how to schedule an appointment and what kind of required documentation to bring.

Unsure of when the state health department will move to the next vaccine distribution phase, Dr. Azonobi explains who will be eligible to get the vaccine in phases 1B and 1C.

“[Phase] 1B includes faculty and staff. So we’re preparing to give vaccines to faculty and staff,” she said. “Phase 1C includes those aged 16-64 who have a medical problem that puts them at risk.” 

Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccine side effects run rampant across the internet, making some people skeptical about getting a vaccine when it will be available to them. Most concerns center around the vaccine’s rapid development. 

Global research, an unlimited amount of funding and new technology allowed for the speedy production of COVID-19 vaccines. 

“We’re really good at vaccines,” Dr. Azonobi said. “Every year with the flu vaccine, it’s a new combination. In this particular case, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use[d] a new type of technology to come up with the COVID[-19] vaccine.”

Many people have concerns about the vaccine’s side effects. Dr. Azonobi explained that vaccine reactions occur in two categories: local and systemic.

Symptoms like soreness and pain at the injection site or a sore arm are local reactions, and fatigue, headaches, muscle aches and fever are systemic reactions. But those reactions are completely normal.

“All of those reactions are your immune systems doing the work it needs to do in order to develop that immune response that will protect you later on,” she said. “So when you get [a] fever and inflammation, that’s your body’s response to the injection, not the injection itself. So you know it’s working when that happens.”

Everyone is ready to regain a sense of normalcy and return to the crowded, bustling lives COVID-19 took away. 

“A lot of us are experiencing COVID[-19] fatigue,” Dr. Azonobi said. “But, please, we’re getting there, the light at the end of the tunnel is coming with vaccinations, it’s coming. We have to hold on to what we already know we should be doing, so please wear your mask, double mask and avoid large gatherings.”

Understanding that many people, especially college students, are social beings that want to congregate, Dr. Azonobi has some advice.

“If you’re going to gather with people, social distance and keep your masks on. These are our greatest weapons against COVID-19,” she said. “Staying at a distance from one another and using our masks as well as washing our hands and being cognizant of our hand hygiene are going to be the best tools in terms of prevention and, of course, get tested regularly.”