A look at major COVID-19 developments over the past week

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Caption
In this recent photo, medical workers move between buildings at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta as the COVID-19 cases in Georgia continue. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s journalists follow the facts, because you deserve to know what’s really going on.

The number of COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized around the state remains at the highest level since the previous pandemic peak reached in January.

Hospitals are back in crisis mode as they try to handle the ongoing flood of patients even though their emergency departments and intensive care units are already full.

Patients ill with COVID-19 made up 33% of the state’s hospitalized patients as of Friday, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The vast majority of the 5,736 COVID-19 patients in Georgia hospitals are unvaccinated.

Article continues below

Many hospitals throughout the state are severely crowded and have been forced to divert ambulances to other hospitals. But, with so many hospitals in the same situation, it can be difficult for ambulances to find a hospital readily accepting patients — not just those suffering from COVID-19, but from other life-threatening emergencies.

Here’s a look at major developments related to COVID-19.

Hospitals cancel elective procedures

Grady Memorial Hospital resorted to canceling all non-essential outpatient surgeries and procedures to deal with the continuing COVID-19 patient surge.

Grady CEO John Haupert said making changes to the hospital’s operations became necessary after an extraordinarily busy Labor Day weekend. “Seriously ill patients with COVID-19 and other significant health issues inundated the hospital,” Haupert said in an announcement to the Grady staff.

As COVID-19 cases exploded in August, hospitals in every region of Georgia were forced to cancel joint replacements, hernia repairs and other procedures that can be safely delayed.

“Hospitals statewide have drastically reduced the number of elective procedures performed on an inpatient basis with the exception of those that must be done for patient safety reasons,” said Anna Adams of the Georgia Hospital Association.

Caption
In this recent photo, Dr. Karen Law and medical workers move between buildings at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Caption
In this recent photo, Dr. Karen Law and medical workers move between buildings at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany is another one of those hospitals.

“Our current situation is untenable,” said Dr. Jason Williams, Phoebe Putney’s medical director of perioperative services, when he announced the change last month. “By postponing elective cases, we will free up operating room resources to best serve our community in this time of desperate need.”

Piedmont Healthcare said its hospitals are making a range of changes to deal with the demands of the fourth COVID-19 surge. “At some locations that means pausing elective surgeries, including surgery, endoscopy and cardiac procedures, so that we can better serve patients in our community and conserve necessary resources to care for them, while also protecting our team,” hospital officials said in a written statement. “In other cases, we are postponing cases that require an overnight stay or an ICU bed. This is in direct response to the delta variant’s impact as it begins to rival past surges, locally and nationally.”

Emory Healthcare is also postponing some elective surgeries.

ExploreCORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA/COMPLETE COVERAGE

Dr. Cecil Bennett, medical director of a primary care center in Newnan and an adjunct professor at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Program, said there is a cost to patients when their procedures are delayed.

“When people think about electives, they think it’s something cosmetic or it’s not something you really need to do,” Bennett said. “But we could be talking about a person who may need a knee replacement and has been in severe pain, and they’ve been waiting for a long time for that surgery and now it’s going to be pushed back even longer. This could be a hernia repair surgery and you may think it’s not that big of a deal to delay it but you could have a situation where delaying the surgery leads to serious complications.”

Bennett said the crowded conditions inside the state’s hospitals are creating other challenges. One of his patients who recently underwent surgery and was released from the hospital was suffering from symptoms that suggested a serious post-surgery sepsis.

Bennett said the patient needed IV antibiotics and pain management but was turned away at an emergency room. The patient was given some antibiotics, but not examined. “I called multiple hospitals and only one said that maybe they could see him, but that he would likely need to wait a long time, maybe eight hours in the emergency room.”

Bennett said he was livid. “These are the ripple effects of a population of unvaccinated people ending up in the hospital, filling up our hospitals,” he said. “And what you have are situations where people cannot get the care they need.”

COVID-19 cases on the uptick at colleges

New COVID-19 cases continue to rise on Georgia’s largest college campuses. So, too, are hospitalizations among college-age Georgians, federal data shows.

Georgia Tech recently reported increases in new cases. The University of Georgia saw another jump, to more than 500 new cases in a recent seven-day stretch, according to data released Wednesday. Both schools are hosting football games Saturday, the first home contest for UGA.

Caption
Last month, new residents of the Lipscomb dormitory at UGA exited the building past a sign advising persons experiencing COVID-19 symptoms not to enter. (Julian Alexander for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Julian Alexander

Credit: Julian Alexander

Caption
Last month, new residents of the Lipscomb dormitory at UGA exited the building past a sign advising persons experiencing COVID-19 symptoms not to enter. (Julian Alexander for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Julian Alexander

Credit: Julian Alexander

Meanwhile, there were 327 confirmed hospital admissions among 18- to 29-year-olds in Georgia, fourth behind Texas, Florida and California, according to recent federal data.

The number of new coronavirus cases among younger students also continues to increase. Metro Atlanta school districts have recorded more than 24,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year, according to the latest data reports.

Multiple districts continue to move schools or grades to remote learning on a temporary basis. Districts are also facing shortages in teachers, school nurses, bus drivers and other staff due to outbreaks.

Staff writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this report.