As omicron overwhelms hospitals, ER wait times become dangerous for non-COVID-19 patients
The Georgia Department of Public Health says the omicron variant now makes up 98% of the COVID-19 cases here, which is overwhelming the health care system with mostly unvaccinated patients. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge reports.
Adrainne Gray's cardiologist told her after a cardiac event that if it happened again, she should call for an ambulance to take her to the emergency room.
That's because the vehicles and personnel on board have medication to help on the way to the hospital, and she would be seen sooner by a doctor.
But when she called 911 recently, Gray waited on hold for an operator for 20 minutes before deciding, against doctor's advice, to have her husband drive her to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
An operator did, finally, call Gray back when she was about five minutes from the Clifton Road ER, which troubled her because time means everything when it comes to strokes and heart attacks.
"Usually, if I walk into an emergency room at 52 years old and having a previous cardiac event, usually the emergency rooms take that pretty seriously," Gray said.
Gray got an electrocardiogram of her heart immediately, but then the nurse told her to have a seat in the waiting area to wait on a triage nurse to run bloodwork.
She waited hours.
The whole time she sat there, Gray thought about a family member who sat in an ER waiting room while having a stroke. That family member was disabled after not receiving medical care fast enough.
“Somehow, the whole system just fell apart,” Gray said. “I did not see that second triage nurse to get my blood drawn until maybe eight o'clock in the morning, and we arrived at 1 in the morning.”
Watching people come into the emergency room, Gray noticed many who said they were COVID-19 positive. That made her nervous.
She also noticed only one nurse seemed to be handling all the new patients, and no one was being called for bloodwork in the emergency room.
“The one nurse that was there who was focused on collecting information from the patients was running,” Gray said. “I mean, she was running from patient to patient to patient, and she was the only one calling patients. There was no one else calling patients but her.”
Gray said she believes the triage nurse who took her blood arrived for the morning shift.
Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said at the Jan. 11, 2022, board meeting that state epidemiologists had no idea what was coming when the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus appeared in early December.
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“Even our best planning probably could not have predicted how quickly this [omicron variant] would spread and the devastation that it would cause because of the ease of transmission,” Toomey said, “and the fact that so many health care workers, public health and hospital workers and other medical workers were becoming ill.”
Dr. Cherie Drenzek, a state epidemiologist, said during the board meeting that COVID vaccines and booster shots are doing their job at keeping people out of serious trouble that requires hospitalization. Though omicron cases surged more than 16-fold in the last month, deaths are not as high as during the delta variant peak in September.
President and CEO of Grady Health System John Haupert said that while the hospitalization rate is lower than previous levels, the number of people being hospitalized is significantly higher and putting a huge burden on the health care system.
“Couple that with this being the first wave where significant numbers of health care employees have become infected and had to be off work,” he said. “It really has been a difficult situation.”
The health care system is weaker now than it had been even in fall 2021, partly because doctors and nurses are burned out — by folks who chose not to get vaccinated against COVID.
The CEO of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, Dr. Jennifer Olsen, said one in five Georgians quit a job to care for loved ones.
As the pandemic worsened, the existing gap grew between those who need care and those who provide it, she said.
"We know that COVID resulted in people who had serious illness and needed to come home from a hospital and have a family member care for them," Olsen said. "We know that people who were maybe planning to move into a nursing home or assisted living facility maybe chose not to — or their family chose not to."
Now, the age group seeing the most cases of COVID are between 35 and 54 years, Drenzek said, while Georgians over age 65 continue to be at the highest risk of death related to the virus.
In Grady’s emergency room, which had 103 patients waiting to be admitted Tuesday, doctors test all patients for COVID.
“For us, it's easy to differentiate a patient who was involved in a motor vehicle accident and brought into our trauma center, who happened to test positive,” Haupert said. “The vast majority of individuals were first diagnosed with what turns out to be an existing chronic medical condition and diagnosed with COVID.”
Those underlying chronic conditions include everything from cancer to obesity, and Haupert said the virus exacerbates those medical conditions.
“It's really impossible to uncouple those,” he said.
Toomey said in her closing comments at Tuesday’s board meeting that the public health infrastructure from the beginning was seen to not be up to the task of responding quickly in an agile way to communicate across not only to the medical community but also to the public.
“And we are very much making that a priority for us throughout this pandemic and especially now,” she said.