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

Lynn and Len Sinclair wait in line for Covid testing at the Fulton County Center for Health and Rehabilitation on Tuesday morning. The couple were exposed to the coronavirus through a Christmas guest. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
Lynn and Len Sinclair wait in line for Covid testing at the Fulton County Center for Health and Rehabilitation on Tuesday morning. The couple were exposed to the coronavirus through a Christmas guest. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Coronavirus infections are at record highs. Hospitals are facing a patient surge at the same time they’re grappling with staff shortages. And public health officials warn the worst might still be weeks away.

Georgia’s fifth coronavirus wave battered the state with a vengeance in the days after Christmas, likely fueled by holiday gatherings and an especially contagious omicron variant.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced emergency steps to assist beleaguered hospitals and overwhelmed testing sites, but no new restrictions to mitigate spread.

On Thursday, Georgia set yet another daily record for new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections with more than 25,000 cases. But that’s likely an under-estimation of spread because of soaring test positivity rates, which means the state isn’t testing enough to capture all the infections, and the under-reporting of positive at-home rapid tests.

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

Atlanta hospitals plead with the public to do their part

With coronavirus cases soaring at “a staggering pace” and reaching a new high in Georgia, six metro Atlanta hospital systems released a joint statement Wednesday night pleading with the public to do their part to curb the spread and preserve medical resources.

The six hospital systems – Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory Healthcare, Grady Health System, Northeast Georgia Health System, Piedmont Healthcare and Wellstar Health System – urged residents to get vaccinated, save 911 calls for true emergencies and be patient and kind towards medical staff.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

In the group statement, the six hospital systems also asked the public to “please remember” that emergency rooms are for those seeking examination and treatment for medical emergencies, not for routine COVID-19 testing or mild symptoms. They urged people to use at-home testing kits, public health testing locations or independent testing facilities if they need to be tested for COVID-19.

‘Another surge’

Grady Memorial, the state’s largest safety net hospital, is nearing its previous pandemic high of COVID-19 patients. The situation is so strained, the system’s chief medical officer said leaders might soon have to decide whether to postpone elective procedures to ensure there are beds for emergencies.

The number of people currently hospitalized for COVID-19 in Georgia, which surpassed 2,800 Thursday, has more than tripled since Thanksgiving.

Public health experts say infections will continue to build in the wake of holiday gatherings, and that will further strain hospitals.

Testing centers have been overwhelmed since before Christmas, and people are flocking to emergency rooms for tests.

“Anyone who is seriously ill or experiencing a true medical emergency should absolutely seek immediate care at the closest emergency center,” said Dr. James E. Black, director of emergency services at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany. “Your local ER, however, should not be the place you go simply to be tested for COVID.”

ExploreThe struggle to get a COVID-19 test is real

Governor takes steps to offer relief

The state is preparing to spend $100 million to hire contract hospital workers and will deploy about 200 Georgia National Guard troops to assist hospitals and coronavirus testing centers.

Kemp said the state Department of Public Health (DPH) is working to expanding testing capacity, including a plan to reopen a mass testing site near Atlanta’s airport.

“I want to reassure my fellow Georgians, we’ve gotten through this before and we will absolutely do this again,” Kemp said. “We’re all in this together.”

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211229-Atlanta-Gov. Brian Kemp holds a press conference to talk about Covid in Georgia on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

211229-Atlanta-Gov. Brian Kemp holds a press conference to talk about Covid in Georgia on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
211229-Atlanta-Gov. Brian Kemp holds a press conference to talk about Covid in Georgia on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The governor said about 200 National Guard troops would be deployed beginning next week, with about half assigned to assist testing centers and the other half going to hospitals across the state.

Kemp announced the state will spend $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to hire contract hospital staffing, enough for about 1,000 medical workers for 13 weeks.

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Kelly Breedlove reads a book while waiting in line for Covid testing at the Fulton County Center for Health and Rehabilitation on Tuesday morning. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Kelly Breedlove reads a book while waiting in line for Covid testing at the Fulton County Center for Health and Rehabilitation on Tuesday morning. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
Kelly Breedlove reads a book while waiting in line for Covid testing at the Fulton County Center for Health and Rehabilitation on Tuesday morning. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

ExploreMetro Atlanta parents weigh risks of schools reopening amid omicron

Vast majority of hospitalized unvaccinated

While omicron spreads much faster than prior strains of the virus, new research suggests omicron infections more often result in milder illness than earlier variants. But omicron is so efficient at spreading, public health officials fear the virus could still swamp hospitals.

If COVID-19 patients fill hospital beds and the virus infects staff, it puts people suffering from other conditions, such as heart attacks or critical injuries from car crashes, at even greater risk.

About 70% of Grady’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. Of the 30% who are vaccinated, Jansen said nearly all received their shots in the first months vaccines were available and haven’t received a booster. And some are immunocompromised.

Wellstar Health System, which operates Kennestone Hospital and Atlanta Medical Center, reported 382 COVID-19 patients at its hospitals as of Tuesday. Of those, 72% were unvaccinated.

Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this report.


BY THE NUMBERS

25,265 – number of confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases in Georgia Thursday, a new record.

38% — percentage of PCR COVID-19 tests reported Thursday as positive by state Department of Public Health

49 – number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Georgia reported Thursday.