Kemp taps Guard, contract health workers as COVID-19 rages

Georgia shatters record number of new cases, set Tuesday
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

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

As infections have soared to their highest point in the pandemic, the state is preparing to spend $100 million to hire contract hospital workers and will deploy about 200 Georgia National Guard troops to beleaguered hospitals and coronavirus testing centers.

Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday announced the emergency steps as hospitals in the Atlanta area are reporting a COVID-19 patient load spike.

Grady Memorial, the state’s largest safety net hospital, is nearing its previous pandemic high. 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.

Georgia reported 19,894 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, shattering the state’s previous high set only a day earlier by more than 6,000.

“We’re sort of now faced with another surge that is increasing more rapidly than the ones we’ve faced in the past,” said Grady CMO Dr. Robert Jansen. “We have not gotten to the point where we are curtailing non-emergent surgery, which we did early in the pandemic, but we are looking at that now.”

The number of people currently hospitalized for COVID-19 in Georgia — nearly 2,400 at midday Wednesday — has nearly tripled since Thanksgiving.

Public health experts say infections will continue to build in the wake of holiday gatherings.

Testing centers have been overwhelmed since before Christmas, and people are flocking to emergency rooms for tests. Leaders of hospitals across the state Wednesday practically begged residents not to come to emergency rooms unless they were seriously ill to preserve resources for those most in need.

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

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Credit: Ben Gray

“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.”

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.”

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.

Georgia is competing with states across the country for contract workers, but Kemp said he is confident Georgia can obtain the traveling nurses, physicians and other professionals Georgia hospitals are likely to need.

Federal data showed more than a quarter of Georgia hospitals reported staffing shortages during the week ended Sunday. Some of that is caused by health care workers leaving the profession and from workers contracting the virus and missing shifts.

The contractors hired by the state, Jansen said, “will help fill the gap” and he said the state’s health systems are grateful for the assistance.

File photo of medical workers move between buildings at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta. (John Spink /


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Hospitals brace

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 84% of all hospital beds statewide were in use at midday Tuesday, including about 81% of intensive care beds.

But some hospital regions were better off than others. In Region I near Columbus, hospitals reported more than 100% of ICU beds were in use, state data showed. Region N, which includes the western and northern suburbs of Atlanta, reported more than 90% of ICU beds in use, while Region E around Athens stood at 90%.

On Dec. 1, Grady cared for 18 coronavirus patients. On Wednesday morning, Grady reported 148 COVID-19 patients, Jansen said.

Grady recorded its pandemic peak of 162 patients in January, plus more than 30 the system cared for at that time in a field hospital at the Georgia World Congress Center.

“I anticipate we will reach that peak and exceed it within a week, probably sooner,” Jansen said.

Slightly more than half of all Georgians are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the U.S.

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.

Gainesville-based Northeast Georgia Health System reported COVID-19 patients climbing to 146 on Wednesday, up from 90 just three days ago.

Ben Roberts, spokesman for Phoebe Putney Health System, said the hospital system in Albany and surrounding areas has seen a staggering increase in positive tests from their clinics and emergency centers in the last few days.

At the hospital system’s main lab in Albany, COVID-19 tests, which come from the main emergency room and other locations including some outpatient clinics, surpassed a 40% positivity rate Monday and Tuesday, a stunning jump from 9% only a week ago.

Roberts said most of the patients are not sick enough to require hospitalization, although the number of hospitalized patients is rising. The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at the system’s hospitals has jumped 153% in the last two weeks, from 17 on Dec. 15 to 43 Wednesday.

National Guard deployed

The Georgia National Guard has been deeply involved in the state’s response to the pandemic since early last year. In addition to disinfecting long-term care homes, guardsmen have tested patients for the disease, aided busy hospitals and assisted food banks.

In August, Kemp authorized the use of up to 2,500 guardsmen to help free up doctors and nurses so they can care for patients, administer vaccinations and test people for the disease.

“We have plenty of bandwidth to be able to do whatever we need to do,” Georgia Adjutant General Thomas Carden Jr. said in an interview. “What we are doing right now is identifying personnel for the mission.”

Asked about the possibility of fatigue in his ranks, Carden underscored the seriousness of the crisis.

“Everybody knows this is serious. They are taking this seriously,” he said. “Our people have been extremely professional and flexible. And their employers and their families have been extremely patient and supportive.”