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Local hospitals talk response to rise in COVID cases

As COVID-19 infection rates have been increasing across Georgia in recent weeks, officials with several local hospital systems are making adjustments to care for those with the coronavirus along with those with other needs.

Katherine Watson, a spokeswoman for the Northside Hospital system, said the hospital has seen a 365% increase in total COVID-19 patients over the last two months and those patients represent about 48% of the overall patient population. 

Watson said the hospital had taken actions to improve the COVID-19 response, including at Northside Forsyth, where two floors – Floors 9 and 10 – for and a combined 64 more inpatient and observation beds for medical/surgical services. The new floors are expected to open by the end of the year. 

“Throughout the pandemic, our medical staff and interdisciplinary hospital leadership have closely monitored our equipment inventories, bed capacity and staffing,” Watson said. “We have construction projects at all five of our hospitals to address current and long-term bed need.”

At Wellstar North Fulton Hospital, which is used by some residents in south Forsyth, officials said they are aware many might be dealing with “COVID fatigue” from those who are tired of hearing about the virus until it impacts them personally but urged that “the impact is real, and it’s now very personal to our community.”

“Wellstar North Fulton Hospital … is seeing a significant surge in patient volume, many very critical,” Jon-Paul Croom, president of the hospital. “The hospital is operating above 100% capacity due to limitations of the available workforce. As of Jan. 8, approximately 38% of the patients are COVID-positive, and 54% of the patients in the full ICU are COVID-19 patients. That is far too many.

Croom said more hospitalizations mean more hospital resources, “often more than other patients,” and he expected to see an increase following the holidays. 

 “And we are only at the beginning of seeing cases from gatherings and kids coming home from college for the holidays,” he said. “The numbers are rising, alarmingly. The trajectory of cases and hospitalizations for the coming few months is concerning, especially with the recent Christmas holiday and New Year’s Eve celebrations.”

To help protect residents, Croom said the community needed to work together to support businesses, stop the spread and keep each other safe, particularly by wearing masks and minimizing gatherings to stop the spread of the disease. 

While we wait for broad vaccine distribution and levels of community immunity over the coming months – which will be a critical line of defense to protect people, our communities, and our health care systems – the best treatment we have right now is prevention. It is urgent for our community that we do things differently for the moment so we can Protect North Fulton … together.”

Doctors and nurses in the Northeast Georgia Health System emergency rooms are facing a caseload of patients so stark that the workers are treating patients on ambulances until space is found inside the hospital.

“We’re used to having one of three busiest emergency departments in the state here in Gainesville, but our current situation is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Mohak Dave, the NGHS chief of emergency medicine. “We’re treating patients in hallways and waiting rooms every day. Sometimes patients have to spend the night there, because there’s no bed available.”

In the past two weeks, Dave said they have had moments where they can’t bring the patient in from the ambulance because of the lack of space in the emergency department. The doctor said the Braselton emergency department has been similarly strained.

“That also holds up the EMS services, because their ambulances have to stay parked and are not able to respond to the next call,” Dave said.  “While some hospitals might simply stop accepting patients via ambulance and redirect them to other places, we see it as our responsibility to care for as many patients as possible. We’re this community’s hospital, and a safety net for the entire region.”

Nick Watson with the Gainesville Times contributed to this report.