Georgia hospital points to suffering, death as pandemic rages among unvaccinated

“It is an awful thing to see,” doctor says, as steep trendline worries hospitals across state

Doctors battling COVID-19 in Georgia warned Friday that hospitals are filling with patients who are suffering in a surge that is worsening by the day.

In a sobering video, Dr. Enrique Lopez described conditions this week at the north campus COVID-19 unit at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, which was one of the hardest-hit hospitals in the nation last year when the pandemic began.

When he got off the elevator last week and entered the unit, he says in the video, he was not prepared for what he saw.

“There were yellow gowns everywhere, and I saw a pastor who was entering a room. I knew what was happening at that moment,” Lopez said.

Rooms on the COVID-19 unit were full. But he said things were different this time, in comparison to the earliest days of the pandemic. A significant number of those hospitalized were young people without a history of health problems.

“What was more terrifying this time is that these people are drowning,” he said. “They’re drowning. And it is an awful thing to see.” The doctor described patients “starving for air..., saying over and over again,’ I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’”

The vast majority of COVID-19 patients hospitalized during this surge are unvaccinated. Doctors and hospital executives across Georgia strongly urged people to get the COVID-19 vaccine as the surge filled their hospitals.

This week, the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Georgia exceeded last summer’s surge. The trendline is so steep that doctors are concerned it may soon overtake the January peak when hospitals faced the most challenging patient loads of the pandemic.

As of Friday, 23% of hospitalized patients statewide were COVID-19 patients. In the south Georgia hospital region that includes Waycross, COVID-19 patients made up 45% of those in the hospital. In the region that includes Savannah and Brunswick, the COVID-19 cases accounted for a third of patients.

“Our cases, hospitalizations and deaths will continue to increase unless we take urgent steps now to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Kathleen E. Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health. Toomey urged Georgians to get vaccinated and wear a mask in crowds, both indoors and outdoors.

Darcy Craven, president and CEO, of Archbold Medical Center in Thomasville, took to social media last week to urge the unvaccinated to get the shots, saying the community was in another health crisis that is “100 percent self-inflicted” due to low vaccination rates.

“Today the hospital is full,” he said in a video posted on social media. “The ICU is full. The emergency room will be full and the waiting room of the [emergency department] will also be full.”

Hospitals across Georgia resorted to putting some elective surgeries on hold in order to preserve resources, while many also resorted to pausing ambulance traffic frequently as their emergency rooms and ICUs were overloaded.

Northeast Georgia Health System was one of the hardest-hit hospitals in the state during the third surge, which hit its peak in January. The system now has had to gear up for another deluge of patients.

“In the first three weeks of this fourth wave, our COVID-19 positive patient numbers have risen at a noticeably faster rate than in any of our previous waves— roughly twice as fast,” said Dr. John Delzell, vice president and incident commander for Northeast Georgia Health System. “We’re preparing for numbers to go higher than we saw in the third wave, but we’re hoping that won’t be the case. "

Scott Steiner, Phoebe Putney Health System president and CEO, didn’t mince words when describing conditions inside the hospitals.

“Today, we are caring for 133 patients in our COVID-19 units, and five of our COVID patients died in the week,” he said in a statement Friday. “Yesterday, we officially exceeded our peak from the last major surge over the winter, meaning we had our highest number of COVID-19 inpatients since April 2020 when Albany was one of the worst pandemic hotspots in the world.”

Steiner said he couldn’t comprehend why, after 18 months in a pandemic, so many continue to doubt the seriousness of COVID-19.

“If only the deniers and the doubters could spend a shift working alongside one of our ICU nurses or respiratory therapists. Maybe then, they would believe. You want to show your support for health care heroes and do something good for our community? Get a vaccine and put on a mask,” Steiner said.

Phoebe Putney urged pregnant women to get the COVID-19 vaccine, following a recommendation this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health system said hospitals in south Georgia have had to perform emergency C-sections on a number of pregnant women who were critically ill with COVID-19.

The hospital system said it has also ordered extra vaccines in response to authorization for an additional dose of vaccines for some people with compromised immune systems.