A 200-bed temporary hospital for coronavirus patients opened in April inside the Georgia World Congress Center. But it saw only minimal use, and the facility is now being dismantled with 80 of its beds moved to a new pop-up hospital in Milledgeville, according to the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Georgia shifts 80 overflow beds southward amid rural virus outbreaks

With coronavirus spreading rapidly through pockets of rural Georgia, the state is shifting 80 of its overflow hospital beds from Atlanta to Milledgeville.

The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency said Wednesday that it will move beds out of the little-used temporary facility at the Georgia World Congress Center and set them up 100 miles southeast inside a shuttered youth military academy. As the downtown Atlanta site was designed to do, Milledgeville’s makeshift hospital will treat patients with mild to moderate symptoms who don’t need ventilators or critical care, relieving hospitals that could be overrun in another surge.

Gov. Brian Kemp said in a news release that the Milledgeville location “is more centrally located for many medical facilities throughout Georgia.

“We continue monitoring the virus data to enable us to ‘right size’ the resources and response so we can ensure every COVID-19 patient gets the care they need,” the governor’s statement said.

Amber Schmidtke, an assistant professor of microbiology at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, said the Milledgeville location makes sense because it’s near the border of two hospital zones on GEMA’s maps that have struggled with patient demand. Region H, which includes hard-hit Hancock County, had only 3 critical care beds available Wednesday. Region E, which surrounds the Athens area, had 14 critical care beds Wednesday.

“I think it’s mainly motivated to help with some of the rural hospital burden, because there are many counties that don’t have a hospital,” said Schmidtke, who posts daily analyses of state data to a Facebook page that has 9,600 followers. “And especially in Region H, the hospitals can be two counties away, and some of these counties take 45 minutes to an hour to drive through.”

Georgia is one of 27 states where the numbers of newly reported cases have grown in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times analysis. Cases are on the rise both in border communities and along the coast. In Troup County along the Alabama line, 71 inmates and two employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the county jail. In Glynn County, where tourists have been flocking to Georgia’s beaches, cases have nearly doubled to more than 400 over the past week, with several restaurants closing amid coronavirus outbreaks and scares.

Statewide, 75% of critical care beds were in use Wednesday, and nearly a third of the state’s ventilators were being used, according to a GEMA report.

“I think that may be an indication of their concern,” Schmidtke said.

The new hospital will be set up inside Milledgeville’s former Youth Challenge Academy, a quasi-military program for wayward teens that the state Department of Defense closed this year because of budget cuts. By early July, two units of the former academy will be repainted, sanitized and equipped with hospital beds and privacy walls, GEMA said.

PAE Staffing, the company operating the downtown Atlanta hospital, will provide medical personnel.

The change also frees up the Georgia World Congress Center. A 200-bed pop-up hospital opened there in April to handle an expected influx of patients, with an estimated cost of $21.5 million, but has seen minimal use. The World Congress Center, meanwhile, has lost millions of dollars amid the pandemic.

The facility’s remaining 120 beds will be placed in storage at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, where they can be pulled out and put to use quickly should a need arise somewhere else in the state, GEMA said.

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