COVID-19 hospitalizations drop dramatically in Georgia

Updated visitation guidelines are displayed at North Patient Tower of Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Updated visitation guidelines are displayed at North Patient Tower of Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

In the darkest days of the winter surge, the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients at the Northeast Georgia Health System soared to 355.

Now, the figure at the system’s four hospital campuses has plummeted to 23, the lowest level since the earliest days of the pandemic.

“I feel like I should knock on wood,” said Dr. John Delzell, the hospital’s vice president of medical education and leader of its incident command center, during a public Zoom call on Tuesday with several Hall County community members, including a representative from the local Health Department and Chamber of Commerce.

At times in January, greater than one out of three patients in Georgia hospitals suffered from COVID-19.

Some hospital districts ran out of intensive care beds. Pushed to the brink, some hospitals, including Northeast Georgia Health System, had to use mobile COVID units, and the state re-opened an emergency field hospital at the Georgia World Congress Center for a third time during the pandemic as a relief valve.

As the number of cases surged last year and into the beginning of this year, Northeast Georgia Medical Center built multiple spaces, including this mobile COVID unit. The hospital system no longer needs to use the mobile unit for COVID-19 patients. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Caption
As the number of cases surged last year and into the beginning of this year, Northeast Georgia Medical Center built multiple spaces, including this mobile COVID unit. The hospital system no longer needs to use the mobile unit for COVID-19 patients. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

But as people in Georgia, beginning with the oldest residents and health care workers, started getting vaccinated, the numbers of those with severe COVID-19 have steadily declined.

And on Wednesday, COVID-19 patients made up about 5% of those hospitalized in Georgia — or one out of 20 people.

“Compared to before, it is night and day,” said Dr. Doug Olson, medical director of the Emergency Department at Northside Hospital Forsyth. “Not that it’s not in the back of your mind all the time, but we have plenty of practice, we have it down now, and to be quite honest, we are in a much better place, and I attribute this to the vaccine, and the number of people getting vaccinating putting us in this place.”

Public health experts also say the biggest factor in the drop is the state’s vaccination campaign. The seven-day rolling average for confirmed and suspected infections is down more than 90% since the peak.

In that time, the rolling averages for both the number of people currently hospitalized for COVID-19 and confirmed and probable deaths reported each day are down about 85%, Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) data show.

In fact, daily reported confirmed and probable coronavirus deaths are hovering near their lowest point since July, before the brunt of last summer’s surge hit.

Threats remain

Despite the improvements, experts warn we are not where we need to be, and threats remain, including emerging variants already identified in virus-ravaged India.

The available vaccines, even if slightly less effective against variants, appear to stave off severe disease from circulating variants, the experts stress.

The more a virus spreads, though, the more opportunities it has to mutate, increasing the chances of major changes that could make available vaccines less effective.

“The more we vaccinate people and the faster we do it, the more we stop the spread, and the more we stop the spread, the less of a chance there is of these variants down the line,” said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor who specializes in infectious diseases at the Emory University School of Medicine.

The falling rates of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths highlight the importance of vaccination, experts say. But with the state largely eliminating or loosening its pandemic restrictions, and as the summer months bring travel and events, experts say growing the ranks of vaccinated people will help keep the pandemic under control.

The number of vaccinated Georgians is continuing to rise — but the pace has slowed in recent weeks.

About 46% of eligible people in Georgia (those 12 and up) have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to data published Wednesday morning by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That translates into about 39% of the total population of Georgia.

But vaccination rates are uneven throughout the state, and some swaths have well below 20% of the population vaccinated. Charlton County, for example, only has 13% of the population with at least one dose of the vaccine, state data show.

Nationwide, about 59% of eligible Americans have received at least one shot, CDC data show.

“For sure we are not where we need to be,” said Dr. Deepak Aggarwal, chief of medical staff at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. “And if we want to get rid of our masks completely and not have to social distance and go back to pre-pandemic times, we need more people to receive the vaccination. We are making progress but are not there yet.”

In this file photo, volunteers Jodi Lewis Lipsitz and Stefanie Agusta (right) help a client with checking in for COVID-19 vaccination at the parking lot of Highland Urgent Care & Family Medicine in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
In this file photo, volunteers Jodi Lewis Lipsitz and Stefanie Agusta (right) help a client with checking in for COVID-19 vaccination at the parking lot of Highland Urgent Care & Family Medicine in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘We could really stop this’

Back in January, Olson, the ER medical director at Northside Hospital Forsyth, said about half of the patients coming into the emergency room there were suffering from COVID-19.

Over his past five shifts, he treated a total of only two patients for COVID-19-related illness.

He and others in the medical field reflected on being able to finally catch their breath and feeling a huge sense of relief after several brutal, horrifying months on the job.

“It was a really tough year and for me personally — with the hospital logistics and the protocols and making sure we had the PPE and all of that — it felt like 24/7,” Olson said. “but now there is this feeling, freedom is not the right word, but a lot less tension.”

“The sense of anxiety and stress has lessened,” said Aggarwal, at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. “We’ve had a chance to reflect. It really felt like a war. I think we are recovering. I still get very anxious, and I start sweating thinking about those patients; there was so much death and I would come back to work the next day and so many patients had died.”

Back in January, he said, at least half his patients were sick with COVID-19; after his second shift this week, he had not yet seen any patients with confirmed COVID-19.

Bill Collins holds the hand of his mother, Edith Collins, as Candice Wade (right), a registered nurse, checks on her at the cardiovascular unit of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. With the number of coronavirus cases falling dramatically, hospitals are opening back up to visitors. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Bill Collins holds the hand of his mother, Edith Collins, as Candice Wade (right), a registered nurse, checks on her at the cardiovascular unit of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. With the number of coronavirus cases falling dramatically, hospitals are opening back up to visitors. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Olson said he rarely sees a patient over 65 with COVID-19, while Aggarwal said that among the patients he treats, he sees a fair number of older patients. But they, along with Emory’s Sexton are all seeing this similarity: None of these doctors have personally treated a COVID-19 patient in recent weeks that has been vaccinated.

“It is important to celebrate where we are,” said Sexton about the current trend line. “This means the vaccine works really well but that is not a sign to let up, this is a sign for us to go harder, because we could really stop this.”

Audience specialist Pete Corson contributed to this article.

COVID HOSPITALIZATIONS DOWN FROM EARLIER PEAKS

Metro Atlanta hospitals have seen a dramatic drop in hospitalizations for adults with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections. These are the current 7-day averages taken for the week ending on May 20 compared to the 7-day averages when the pandemic was at its peak. (SOURCE: Ga. Dept. of Public Health)

Northside Hospital Forsyth (Cumming): 19 current, down from 116.7 the week of Jan. 15, 2021

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital (Albany): 22.6 current, down from 105.6 the week of Jan. 15, 2021

Northside Hospital Cherokee (Canton): 13 current, down from 102.7 the week of Jan. 1, 2021

Emory University Hospital (Atlanta): 10.4 current, down from 110.6 the week of Jan. 8, 2021

Floyd Medical Center (Rome): 15.3 current, down from 80.7 the week of Jan. 1, 2021

Emory Decatur Hospital (Decatur): 16.7 current, down from 90.6 the week of Jan. 8, 2021

Emory University Hospital Midtown (Atlanta): 24.9 current, down from 115 the week of Jan. 8, 2021

Grady Memorial Hospital (Atlanta): 28.9 current, down from 218.7 the week of Jan. 15, 2021

Piedmont Hospital (Atlanta): 24.3 current, down from 111.3 the week of Jan. 8, 2021

Northside Hospital (Atlanta): 25.3 current, down from 148.1 the week of Jan. 8, 2021

Emory Hillandale Hospital (Lithonia): 11.1 current, down from 41.7 the week of Jan. 15, 2021

Emory Johns Creek Hospital (Johns Creek): 11.7 current, down from 61 the week of Jan. 8, 2021

Tanner Medical Center - Carrollton: 9.7 current, down from 52.7 the week of Dec. 25, 2020

Tanner Medical Center Villa Rica: 6.9 current, down from 36.4 the week of Jan. 1, 2021

Piedmont Newton Hospital (Covington): 8 current, down from 37 the week of Jan. 8, 2021

Cartersville Medical Center: 6.4 current, down from 60.6 the week of Jan. 1, 2021