Georgia COVID-19 numbers surge as more enter hospitals
ATLANTA (AP) — Leaders of some of Georgia’s hospitals told Gov. Brian Kemp in a meeting Wednesday that they’re seeing increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients, although they said in some cases those infected with the coronavirus do not appear as gravely ill as patients who were hospitalized in earlier waves.
The Republican governor continued to express optimism about Georgia’s level of infection compared to other states, as well as about vaccines on the horizon. But some hospital leaders warned that they expect things to keep getting worse, while many said they struggle to hire nurses and that staff members are exhausted nearly nine months into the pandemic.
“While we are keeping careful eye on the data, we are encouraged that — at least as of now — our overall numbers for both cases in nursing homes and active hospitalizations are still below our summer surge,” Kemp said.
The meeting came as the number of virus cases in Georgia continues to surge. The seven-day rolling average of molecular and rapid antigen tests rose above 3,600 on Wednesday. Georgia’s average for molecular tests alone, before rapid tests were in wide use, peaked in July at 3,745.
“I think it’s important for all of us to stay grounded that this third surge is very different than the first and the second ones,” said Bryce Gartland of Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare. “This one is much more insidious in nature. It’s much more building in nature.”
Gartland said the patients Emory is admitting are younger and less likely to end up in an intensive care unit or on a ventilator. But he and other hospital leaders said demand from other patients was higher than in earlier surges, and those other patients are much sicker.
“While we’re all focused in on caring for those COVID individuals, we’ve got to remember that those non-COVID individuals have equally as important issues, many of them in many circumstances more lethal than actually COVID itself,” he said.
Thus far, the number of people in hospitals has not approached July and August, when Georgia went almost three weeks with more than 3,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalized each day. The number rose to nearly 2,300 on Wednesday, though, almost double the most recent low point in early October. The share of positive molecular tests has risen sharply in recent days, suggesting many cases are going undetected.
Strain is beginning to show for some hospitals.
“We’re really at overcapacity from a hospital perspective, so we’re struggling with that. We just do not have enough inpatient beds,” said Loy Howard of Carrollton-based Tanner Health System, who said the group is opening more beds with state permission. “We’re managing our COVID situation but they are trending up.”
Intensive care units are also filling up, although sometimes not with COVID-19 patients. Six of the state’s 14 hospital regions reported more than 90% of their ICU beds were full on Wednesday. The Georgia Coordinating Center, which directs patient traffic, said Wednesday that 26 hospitals were turning away new ICU patients, including all three hospitals in Macon, both hospitals in Athens, and the flagship Atlanta-area hospitals of the Emory, Piedmont and WellStar systems.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force, in this week’s report for Georgia, said hospital admissions are “elevated.”
“Conduct aggressive impact testing of adults under 40 to rapidly identify those who became infected over Thanksgiving before they spread the virus to more vulnerable individuals, driving another round of increased hospitalizations and fatalities,” the task force wrote.
As nursing home leaders told Kemp earlier this week, hospital leaders said they’re also struggling to hire nurses. The Kemp administration says it will have spent $200 million in federal coronavirus aid to pay for contract nurses at 56 hospitals statewide. Bill Lee, the CEO at Evans Memorial Hospital in Claxton, said the the hospital has tried to hire 18 nurses since the summer, but only has six of the new hires on staff at this point. And he said even that progress has been offset by six older registered nurses who have taken early retirement.
“We have upped dollars and thrown money at that and we still cannot get workers,” Lee said.