WellStar Health System has built temporary extensions to their emergency departments to handle the growing number of patients coming in with flu-like symptoms.

WellStar Health System has built temporary extensions to their emergency departments to handle the growing number of patients coming in with flu-like symptoms.

COVID-19 cases in Georgia as of Thursday are mounting to nearly 200 as more people become sick and more test results come back positive.

One of the largest medical organizations in Georgia is WellStar Health System, including 11 hospitals, dozens of urgent care centers and hundreds of medical providers.

GPB’s Rickey Bevington spoke with Dr. Chirag Patel, Wellstar's Medical Director of Population Health.

GPB’s Rickey Bevington spoke with WellStar's Medical Director of Population Health Dr. Chirag Patel. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Rickey Bevington: The new data point that we have today is that 40% of those hospitalized are between the ages of 20 and 54. That's not a senior’s disease, as we've been hearing. Is the going messaging now from doctors that all age groups should be acting like we have coronavirus?

Chirag Patel: I think it's important to take that data point in context. What's important is that the ages between 25 and 50 can become seriously ill. If you do end up having symptoms that are outside of what you would consider a flu-like illness, definitely seek advanced care. Go to a hospital. Go to the emergency room. Go to your urgent care.

But before you do call them, let them know that you're coming. That way they can prepare for you. That way, you don't expose anybody else or put anybody else at risk across the Wellstar system.

Bevington: How many coronavirus and suspected coronavirus cases are you seeing as of Thursday?

Patel: In the spirit of privacy, we can't comment on the number of patients, the number of suspected patients or our team members. But what we can say is in the state of Georgia, that number is increasing every day by leaps and bounds.

Bevington: We've heard of the lack of testing. Does Wellstar have adequate numbers of tests?

Patel: We are working with our state government and our federal government to make sure we have the appropriate amount of testing. And as of today, we do have appropriate testing amounts.

What we will say is there is not blanket testing for everybody who would like testing. There are circumscribed guidelines by the CDC on who should be tested, and we are trying to adhere to those guidelines as best as possible.

Bevington: When you say “appropriate testing amounts,” what does that mean?

Patel: You want to make sure you rule out flu and respiratory viruses that are very common, maybe bronchitis. Not everybody is going to be walking in with COVID-19, and so, in the event that you have something simple, we want to treat you as such.

If you're a high risk or you screen into some of these questions of travel or contact with somebody would cover it, then it's appropriate to be tested.

Bevington: You're saying that for the people that you're seeing as of Thursday with all of those factors, you feel like you have enough tests to get those people diagnosed?

Patel: I do.

Bevington: That’s as of today, and things, of course, are rapidly changing. Can I ask you, how many people you think in Georgia at this time have coronavirus and may not know it?

Patel: I don't know. I think we are seeing more and more community spread. And so, with community spread, it's just a tough number to even guess.

Bevington: We have, however, diagnosed cases hovering right around 200. Could there be 10,000 people in Georgia with coronavirus?

Patel: So, let's put it into context. There are about 4,996 cases in the US. The bulk of those cases are in New York City, California and the state of Washington. What's also important to keep in mind is as we test more, we'll find more cases. I think over the next few days, you'll start to see that number rise.

Bevington: So, you said several hundred. Do you think currently there's only several hundred cases of coronavirus in Georgia?

Patel: Several hundred reported.

Bevington: It seems like the numbers are not telling the whole story. Does that frustrate you as a doctor who wants to make data-driven decisions?

Patel: I think it’s really important to take things into context. It's important to know the whole number, obviously, because you want to have that to do a lot of population health interventions. But if you really look at the messaging that's coming out, everybody should treat themselves as if they're at risk and act accordingly. We're never going to really know the total number.

Bevington: But for us to really make an impact and flatten the curve of community spread, we're all going to have to act like we have some risk. Is Wellstar getting access to the national strategic reserves of personal protection and protective equipment for medical personnel.

Patel: We are, and we already have a supply that we are using, and then we are accessing the appropriate resources to refill those stores as needed. 

Bevington: Do you have enough masks? Do you have enough gowns right now? Are you still waiting for what you need?

Patel: Today, we have enough.

Bevington: We're hearing reports that insurance companies are not approving moving COVID-19 patients out of hospital beds which may be preventing some hospitals from treating new patients who need those hospital beds. What's happening with insurance companies that Wellstar right now vis-a-vis that issue?

Patel: You know, it's so new that process, most of these patients, not just at Wellstar, but across the country. We don't know what the long-term care of these patients should actually look like, since we don't know what the trajectory of illness looks like. I think there has been some administrative hurdles and clinical hurdles as well to even figure out what the right place of care should be after somebody recovers long term.

So I think, we're all learning as we go right now. I think it's important for you to be intellectually and emotionally flexible because we're receiving information about outcomes, about how people are doing moment to moment and it varies.

We have good stories and bad stories. Also, the guidelines of how we should do our day-to-day work, our day-to-day life is also changing. That requires us to be flexible as citizens, as people who live in this country, to really adapt quickly because everything is changing so fast.

Rickey Bevington: Dr. Patel, thank you for joining me.

Patel: Of course. Can I add a couple of things?

Bevington: Sure.

Patel: What I would definitely articulate to your listeners is we have a lot of health care providers, clinicians and front liners, if you will, whose personal and professional sacrifices and the risks they're making today should not be forgotten in the future. And so, their sacrifices won't be forgotten. 

Sophia Saliby contributed to the production of this interview. Josephine Bennett contributed to the production of this web story.