‘No End In Sight’ For Pandemic: A Morgue Full. Emergency Room Swamped. Hospitals Stretched To Limit
Doctors at one metro Atlanta hospital were greeted with a grim message on a whiteboard: “Morgue full.” Medics in southeast Georgia tended to sick patients in ambulances for 30 minutes to an hour in hopes a hospital bed would become free. An emergency room in middle Georgia overflowed so much stretchers lined the walls.
Those are the stories front-line workers have shared as the coronavirus pandemic rages across Georgia with more than half the state’s counties now considered red zones.
With schools reopening and high school sports set to resume, the widespread community outbreaks have health care workers on edge.
“We are very concerned about the number of patients coming in – and, to be honest with you, we see no end in sight,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, one of the state’s top infectious disease doctors, told GPB’s Political Rewind. “We’re just tired.”
He added, “I feel like we are in the Titanic. We hit the iceberg, and we’re trying to decide whether we should have the band play now or later, and who is going to get wet first.”
His biggest concern is how hospitals will find enough staff as more people become infected. He said staffers are falling ill with coronavirus as are some of their loved ones, creating an additional strain on the system.
“You cannot make ICU nurses out of thin air. You cannot bring doctors and make them ICU specialists out of thin air,” said del Rio, the executive associate dean for Emory University School of Medicine at Grady. “All hospitals are struggling with staff.”
That sentiment was echoed by Scott Steiner, the CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System in southwest Georgia which bore the brunt of the surge in the spring.
Steiner said he delivered snacks and encouragement to those on the front lines earlier this week. “I call them warriors,” he said. “This is their fifth month. People are just a little bit tired. They want it to go away.”
He said he is worried about his staff’s mental wellbeing because too many have had to hold up an iPad so family members can say goodbye to loved ones from afar. “What a heavy weight,” he said.
To Georgians who still refuse to wear masks, Steiner had a message. “Let me have my team intubate you and see how much you like that,” he said. “Wearing a mask is not a big deal.”
Dr. Elizabeth Ford, the DeKalb County district health director, said the widening pandemic is a growing concern for all public health officials.
“What we are seeing is really a sustained increase, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” she told Political Rewind.
Ford said the state is past the point of another lockdown, so the onus is on people following rules laid out by public health officials. “We do have community spread. We are in a red zone,” she said. “Our numbers are going up.”
Governor Says He Is 'Laser-Focused'
With hospitals stretched to the limits, the office of Gov. Brian Kemp on Friday said the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta would reopen on Monday as a makeshift hospital, providing another 60 beds and eventually be able to get to a 120-bed capacity.
“My administration is laser-focused on expanding hospital surge capacity while working to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Georgia,” Kemp said.
The governor also said the state was partnering with Grady Health System to create a coordinating center to allow hospitals around the state to find available hospital beds in real-time.
More than 2,100 emergency room physicians, epidemiologists and health care workers signed a letter sent to the governor on Friday, pleading with him to issue a statewide mask mandate.
"Now is the time to update policies to align with current science,” the letter said.
The governor late Friday extended his executive order, falling short of a mask mandate. Kemp has said such mandates are unenforceable.
According to the state’s data, 87% of the state’s intensive care beds are in use.
Three regions, stretching from the South Carolina border in northeastern Georgia south through the college town of Athens through middle Georgia to the Florida border, have a total of six ICU beds available, according to GEMA.
Those regions include more than 30 counties and stretch about 400 miles.
Dr. Brian Dawson, the chief medical officer for the South Georgia Medical Center with its main hospital in Valdosta, said smaller hospitals have become "overwhelmed" with patients and staffing issues.
“We have actively reached out to them to ask if we can help to take care of their patients,” Dawson said. “I wouldn’t say at this point we are necessarily bursting at the seams, although I will say we have been stretched at times.”
His hospital system has 71 COVID-19 patients; in early June, the figures were in the single digits. “We have weathered the storm relatively well thus far,” Dawson said.
'Too Much Virus In The Community'
In nearby Albany, Phoebe Putney CEO Steiner said he had more than 80 COVID-19 patients, compared to their peak of 181 in the spring when two funerals served as a super spreading event and overwhelmed the hospital.
The problem now, he said, is the hospital has more than 300 patients being treated for other conditions. If two dozen more people got sickened soon with coronavirus, his hospital may not be able to handle that load.
“This story isn’t written yet, and who knows what’s coming,” he said. “What happens when COVID-19 teams up with influenza? It could be devastating.”
Del Rio said Emory, the state’s largest health system, has seen its coronavirus numbers triple in the last three weeks. He fears a potential collision course with schools reopening and sports beginning.
The state needs more robust testing, a mask mandate and people rigorously washing their hands and following other health guidelines, he said.
A heath adviser to the NCAA on college sports, del Rio said, “We all feel that there is simply too much virus in the community to do anything safely in many communities.”
He added, “We simply don’t have enough resources to continue this surge unabated.”