Georgia hospitals warn of COVID-19 strain as wave crests

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ATLANTA – The latest surge of COVID-19 may have peaked in Georgia, but hospitals continue to warn of the strain they face from overloaded emergency rooms and inpatient wards, urging people to take precautions despite widespread fatigue with pandemic restrictions.

Six Atlanta-area hospital systems made a joint appeal Thursday for people to be more vigilant about getting vaccinated, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, reflecting a wave that drove hospitalizations to a new peak in metro Atlanta, unlike in the rest of the state so far.

“It’s wall-to-wall stretchers,” said Dr. Robert Jansen, chief medical officer of the Grady Health System. “We have no capacity left at the hospital and I don’t think we’re unique in that. This particular variant has been overwhelming to the health care systems.”

State data continues to show a wave of infections that shot up first in metro Atlanta and then rippled out into the rest of Georgia. The number of COVID-19 positive patients hospitalized statewide fell below 5,200 on Friday, down from a peak of about 5,400 earlier this week. That decline can be seen most clearly at hospitals in Atlanta, Athens and Macon.

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 positive patients were still at peak or rising Friday in parts of north Georgia around Gainesville and Dalton, as well as in Augusta, Columbus, Albany and rural areas of middle and south Georgia.

The three-hospital Phoebe Putney system, based in Albany, saw one of the worst surges nationwide of the first wave of COVID-19 in March 2020. Hospitalizations as of Friday had reached the peak of that wave and were climbing toward the higher level recorded in August during the wave driven by the delta variant

“We are dealing with extremely high volumes in our emergency centers and our inpatient units as admissions continue to outpace discharges,” Phoebe Putney CEO Scott Steiner said Friday. He warned of long waits in emergency rooms.

But hospital crowding may be shifting out of the emergency room statewide, as physicians urge people to seek COVID-19 tests and other minor care elsewhere. State data showed that 10 Atlanta-area emergency rooms and 10 elsewhere in the state were turning away ambulances Friday. As some hospitalized patients become sicker, intensive care units may be under more pressure, with 14 Atlanta-area ICUs and 18 more in other parts of the state turning away ambulances with critical care patients.

Hospital systems are also strained because so many employees have been infected.

“We’re seeing record number of our employees out sick with COVID-19 due to the highly contagious nature of the omicron,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, director for infectious diseases at the Gainesville-based Northeast Georgia Health System.

Dr. Andrea Shane of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta said that at points in recent weeks, more than 70% of hospitalizations have been from COVID-19. She said admitted patients are “becoming younger and younger especially during the omicron surge” because those younger than 5 still can’t be vaccinated.

Case data shows an outbreak that has very clearly peaked in metro Atlanta, with cases down more than 50% in some counties like Douglas that had been hotbeds of reported infections in late December. However, data shows the outbreak may not have peaked yet in Dalton, Brunswick, Albany and some other areas.

Reported deaths are rising, now averaging more than 40 per day for the first time since November. Deaths are a lagging indicator and could keep piling up for weeks. More than 32,000 deaths are attributed to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in Georgia.

Dr. Danny Branstetter, director of infection prevention for the Wellstar Health System, said a chain of 10 infections among unvaccinated people in one family led to the deaths of three relatives.