COVID hospitalizations rise over holiday weekend as omicron surges

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to climb in Georgia, particularly in the metro Atlanta area, as the fast-moving omicron variant marches across the state.

Two hundred Georgia National Guard troops, meanwhile, are expected to start deploying as soon as this week to assist testing centers and hospitals, many of which have seen overcrowded emergency rooms and hectic intensive care wards amid a staffing crunch.

On Tuesday, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta reported 101 children hospitalized for COVID-19, the most the system has seen at one time since the start of the pandemic. Georgia’s largest hospital, Grady Memorial, is also seeing record COVID-19 patient loads.

The state Department of Public Health (DPH) reported 67,610 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases from Saturday through Tuesday, the state’s first report of the new year. The state also reported 35 confirmed deaths over the past four days.

DPH typically reports its new infection and death data on weekdays, with Monday’s report also including figures from the weekend. But on Monday DPH said the agency’s report was delayed a day because of an “overwhelming” volume of testing data.

The seven-day rolling average of new infections is at its highest point of the pandemic at 19,411. The rolling average for test positivity has also never been higher, with 37% of tests coming back positive, according to Tuesday’s report.

The state set a new single-day record for confirmed and probable infections on Dec. 30 followed by its second worst day on New Year’s Eve. The pace of reported infections has flattened a bit, but that could be a reflection of testing site closures during the holiday weekend and reporting lags.

“We are in the thick of this and I don’t think we are done with this (surge) for at least two weeks,” Dr. Felipe Lobelo, an epidemiologist at Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, said Tuesday of coronavirus infections. “I think we are not necessarily hitting the panic button yet, but we are obviously monitoring these mega trends.”

Hospitals see wave of patients

Omicron spreads faster than previous variants, though at least early indications are that many patients generally have less severe symptoms.

Still, health officials warn the more contagious variant could swamp hospitals given omicron’s rapid spread, even if a smaller percentage of infections lead to hospitalization.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, 3,938 people in Georgia were hospitalized for COVID-19, or more than quadruple the number reported on Thanksgiving Day.

More people are hospitalized for COVID-19 now than at the peak of Georgia’s second wave in the summer of 2020. The overwhelming majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations are unvaccinated, health officials say.

Many hospitals report they are as full of patients of all conditions as they have been at any time in the pandemic. On Wednesday afternoon, about 86% of hospital beds were occupied statewide, including about 84% of intensive care beds.

Grady reported 250 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 on Tuesday morning.

“It’s our highest number since the pandemic began,” Grady spokeswoman Denise Simpson said.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta updated its COVID-19 patient count Tuesday to say the system has 101 children hospitalized due to COVID-19 — up from 62 a week earlier. The previous high was in August during the delta wave when 69 kids were hospitalized.

Early evidence suggests the fast-spreading omicron typically causes mild illness, especially for those who are vaccinated or previously had a COVID-19 infection. Boosters also appear to be effective in preventing serious illness and hospitalizations.

But with young children under 5 not yet eligible for vaccination, and only those 12 and older qualifying for boosters, younger children are particularly vulnerable to an infection.

Omicron for many people stays in the nose and upper respiratory tract, rather than settling into the lower respiratory tract and lungs, as previous variants did. While the changes in the mechanisms of this variant could bode well for most healthy adults, it could be worse for children who are more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses like influenza.

‘People are burned out’

Wellstar Health System, which operates Atlanta Medical Center and Kennestone Hospital, reported 718 coronavirus patients across its facilities on Tuesday, nearly double the figure hospitalized seven days earlier.

The Phoebe Putney Health System, which serves Albany and surrounding areas, also reported a jump in hospitalizations. The system said they’ve experienced an increased demand for monoclonal antibody treatments and will likely run out in a matter of days. The hospital system also announced tighter visitor restrictions.

Dr. Alex Isakov, a professor of emergency medicine at Emory University, said fewer people are following infection prevention measures such as wearing a mask and avoiding large indoor gatherings. Georgia also has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S.

“People are burned out,” he said.

Last week, Kemp announced the plan to deploy 200 National Guard troops, with about half going to testing centers and the other half to assist hospitals. The governor also said the state would spend $100 million in federal pandemic rescue funds to hire about 1,000 contract health workers for 13 weeks.

In an update Tuesday on assistance from National Guard troops, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said 96 troops will be assigned to support 16 Department of Public Health testing sites around the state, as well as assist with needs at the department’s warehouse, and 102 personnel will be assigned to support 11 hospital facilities, including Grady Health System, Piedmont Atlanta and the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. They hope to have all assignments filled by mid-January.

Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this report

Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) gave its first updated COVID-19 case numbers for 2022 on Tuesday:

67,610 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases from Saturday through Tuesday

35 confirmed deaths Saturday-Tuesday

3,938 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Georgia Tuesday