Georgia hospitals plead for public to help lower COVID-19 spread

Top doctors at six of metro Atlanta’s largest hospital groups made extraordinary pleas on Thursday for Georgians to get vaccinated and take steps to reduce coronavirus infections to ensure emergency rooms and hospitals can care for people most in need.

In an hourlong briefing, the hospital leaders spoke of overflowing emergency rooms, dying patients, and devastated ICU nurses spread too thin. They said they are grappling with a combination of factors, including a high volume of patients, staff shortages and difficulty getting COVID-19 therapeutics. It’s all resulting in them having to ration care for only the sickest of patients.

”After two years of this pandemic people are tired of hearing the word COVID,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, medical director for infectious diseases at Northeast Georgia Health System. All eligible Georgians should get vaccinated, boosted and continue to wear masks indoors and avoid large crowds and follow public health guidelines if exposed, she said.

”We need to continue to reinforce that message that we’re still in it,” Mannepalli said.

The doctors asked the public to be patient. ERs are jammed, staff are exhausted and the reverberations from this latest wave could last for weeks. But noticeably absent was any request for state intervention or new mandates or coronavirus restrictions. Gov. Brian Kemp has resisted new restrictions, instead calling for people to take personal responsibility while fighting vaccine and mask mandates along with other Republican governors.

“Wall-to-wall stretchers”

Coronavirus infections remain near all-time highs recorded by the Georgia Department of Public Health earlier this month. Dr. Robert Jansen, chief medical officer at Grady Health System said the state’s largest hospital is at 110% capacity.

”It’s wall-to-wall stretchers,” Jansen said of Grady’s emergency department. “We have no capacity left in the hospital.”

”One of the myths we keep hearing is that it isn’t that serious,” Jansen said. “Perhaps it isn’t for some folks who are lucky. But COVID-19 is having a tremendous impact on underlying disease. For those patients who have other diseases such as heart failure, diabetes, sickle cell anemia or are immunocompromised, if they get infected, they get incredibly sick.”

As its emergency room has filled, Grady has been forced to divert ambulances to other hospitals many times over the past several weeks, Jansen said.

”That has a huge impact on the rest of the city,” he said. “Grady is the trauma center for Atlanta.”

Jansen said Grady is at a high plateau for COVID cases but he wouldn’t say his hospital has peaked. ”It might be improving in the next week or so and we’re hopeful for that,” he said. “But we have to be ready because isn’t going to go away. COVID-19 is not going to disappear after this wave. There will be other variants after this wave.”

What hospitals need from you

Vaccination is critical to avoid the most severe outcomes from COVID-19, including hospitalization and death. That is still true, even with the omicron variant, because omicron is infecting so many people.

The doctors said all eligible Georgians should get vaccinated and get the booster shot as soon as they are eligible. The overwhelming majority of people hospitalized or dying from COVID are the unvaccinated, they said.

Dr. Danny Branstetter, medical director of infection prevention at Wellstar Health System, reported on an unvaccinated family of 10 who all wound up infected after contact with an elderly member who fell and broke a hip — due to dizziness from COVID-19 oxygen depletion. Three of them died of the disease.

A half-dozen top hospital leaders spoke to the public in a joint event on Thursday, January 20, 2022, pleading with Georgians to help reduce COVID-19 spread and spare the load on hosptial. Participatants included, clockwise from top left: Dr. Robert Jansen, chief medical officer and chief of staff at Grady Health System; Dr. Andrea “Andi” Shane, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta; Dr. Jayne Morgan, executive director of the COVID-19 Task Force at Piedmont Healthcare; Dr. Danny Branstetter, medical director of infection prevention at Wellstar Health System; Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, medical director for infectious diseases at Northeast Georgia Health System; and Sharon Pappas, chief nurse executive of Emory Healthcare. (Image by Ariel Hart and Pete Corson/AJC)

Credit: Ariel Hart

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Credit: Ariel Hart

The vaccinated who get hospitalized tend to be ones who haven’t been boosted or who have severe underlying conditions.

”Even though the vaccines are challenged (by the omicron variant), they remain a success,” said Dr. Jayne Morgan, executive director of the Piedmont Healthcare COVID-19 task force. “These vaccines still by and large have kept us out of the hospital and out of the morgue.”

Breakthrough infections are on the rise, but like hospitalizations, the overwhelming majority of new infections also are from unvaccinated individuals.

Masks and limiting close interactions during the wave remain important. Georgians – even those vaccinated and boosted – should continue to wear a mask in public and avoid large gatherings, the doctors said.

If you feel cold and flu symptoms, assume you have COVID-19 and isolate. You should get a test, either a rapid at-home test or PCR laboratory test. Testing centers can be found on the Georgia Department of Public Health website:

Do not seek a test from a hospital emergency department. Only go there if you need emergency care.

A negative rapid test does not guarantee you do not have the virus, and if you take a PCR test, continue to isolate as you await the results.

Dangerous Misconceptions

The hospital leaders also knocked down what they said is a mistaken notion that all cases of the omicron variant are “mild,” or that children need no protection from it. And perhaps worst of all, that it might even be worth deliberately contracting.

“This is a terrible idea,” said Dr. Morgan of Piedmont. Due to the strain of the ongoing wave of cases, Piedmont is having to “triage,” or ration, care. Someone who deliberately infects themselves might not get care when they seek it out, Dr. Morgan said.

There is also the matter of “long COVID,” symptoms that appear in many COVID-19 patients after the original infection has passed. It can occur even after mild or asymptomatic infections.

“Long-haul syndrome continues to be very prevalent,” Morgan said. “And not only is it prevalent, we still have no treatment for it. We have no way to identify who will move on to these long-haul symptoms and we have no way of preventing it.”

Dr. Andi Shane, division chief for pediatric infectious disease at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University, added that children are at great risk from the virus, and need the protection of vaccines, masks and distancing. They are much less likely to die from COVID-19, but they can contract debilitating conditions from it.

Currently, children as young as 5 qualify to receive a vaccine.

Staff writer Helena Oliviero contributed to this report.