Georgia braces for feared surge of COVID-19 cases in stretched hospitals

211221-DECATUR-Janai Kornegay, center, helps customers while working at the Viral Solutions drive-through COVID testing site in Decatur on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. The line for testing stretched more than a block as people prepare for Christmas travel.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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211221-DECATUR-Janai Kornegay, center, helps customers while working at the Viral Solutions drive-through COVID testing site in Decatur on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. The line for testing stretched more than a block as people prepare for Christmas travel. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Georgia hospital officials say their already busy facilities are bracing for surges of COVID-19 cases as the omicron variant sweeps through the state.

Across the state, 81 percent of intensive care beds were filled at 1 p.m. Tuesday, along with 64 percent of emergency room beds, state figures showed. Hospitals were severely overcrowded and emergency rooms were diverting patients throughout the state, including metro Atlanta, where 80% of emergency department beds were filled.

Omicron rapidly overtook the delta variant as the most common in a cluster of Southern states, including Georgia, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemiologists say omicron spreads much more easily than previous variants. Early indications are fewer will become seriously ill from omicron and the hospital admission rate is lower than with other variants. But as the number infected climbs sharply, health officials have said they’re worried it will still lead to overwhelmed medical facilities.

“I think we’ll be overwhelmed again,” Monty Veazey, president and CEO of Georgia Alliance for Community Hospitals, said Tuesday. “Our issue is manpower. It’s a big issue. We’re all lacking manpower.”

He said vaccines continue to be important to keep hospitalizations down and give understaffed facilities a better chance at helping more patients.

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“I’m very concerned,” said Dr. Harry Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. “It doesn’t bode well for what’s to come — unless we really redouble our efforts to not only increased the number of people who have had their primary vaccination series, but also boosters.”

The rapid speed at which omicron spreads had Heiman worried that the state’s hospitals could see a return to the grim days of delta. “We saw what happened with with the last surge with delta and how devastating it was to our state,” Heiman said.

“We expect that there will be another surge,” said Dr. John Delzell of Gainesville’s Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

Delzell said that surge will likely affect hospital staff too. During the late summer spike in delta variant cases, large numbers of mostly unvaccinated staff were out sick. A repeat of that would come at the same time as hospitals, including Northeast Georgia Medical Center, struggle to keep enough nurses on staff as many leave the profession or take new positions.

“Most of the hospitals in Georgia have expanded their capacity for critical care and expanded their number of beds just to be able to meet the demand of these surges,” Delzell said. “You can make new beds, but you still have to have nurses to take care of (patients). I think that’s challenging for all the hospitals.”

On Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp said hospital leaders have told him they can handle what’s ahead.

“The hospitals are very busy right now, even with non-COVID stuff, a lot of people getting end of the year elective surgeries and other things,” Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters on Monday. “(Hospital leaders are) telling me if we can hold on until the end of the year and get past that, they feel like they’ll be in good shape for a while. But we’re ready to help wherever needed.”

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A report released Tuesday by the White House said Georgia’s rate of new COVID-19 cases rose 31 percent over last week. Hospital admissions were up 5 percent statewide, the report said.

For the week ended Dec. 18, the CDC reported omicron made up 95% of all the samples put through genetic testing in Georgia. While more cases may appear, the symptoms caused by omicron appear to be generally less severe than other variants.

“If you just take the first four weeks of the omicron wave, we saw almost three to four times more cases than in the equivalent period during the delta wave or the beta wave,” said Salim Abdool Karim, a South African epidemiologist who’s tracked omicron from the time it was identified. “But what’s striking is that the (hospital) admission rate is far lower.”

In Gainesville, Delzell said he’s concerned because the hospital still doesn’t have the last delta surge fully behind it. At its peak in September, the the hospital had 330 COVID patients. “It never really got down to what we would think of as a valley in between the peaks,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, the hospital was caring for 76 COVID patients; 87 percent of them hadn’t been vaccinated. In critical care units, Delzell said the percentage of unvaccinated people is consistently high and has been near 100 percent.

Staff writers Tamar Hallerman and Ariel Hart contributed to this report.

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