N95 mask on my face, I took the elevator up to the fifth floor in the North Patient Tower — where some of Northeast Georgia Health System’s more than 300 COVID-positive patients are being treated.
Five of us in that elevator filtered into the crowded hallway where other media outlets had already begun shooting video and staff members were explaining that the hallways were crowded with equipment in a space not designed for this kind of treatment.
Carts lined the walls. A machine was blowing cold air into the hallway because the negative pressure mechanisms that pull the coronavirus out of the air also suck out the air conditioning.
And here we were blocking the hallways. At one point, a staff member had to ask us to move so she could push an empty bed through the hallway into a room. Soon after, they asked the TV crews not to film that direction out of respect. The patient had died.
Our intrusion felt just that — such an intrusion in a space where staff were trying to keep patients alive — or at least comfortable. But staff took time to speak with us, to explain their reality.
Windows have been put in the doors on this wing so nurses can view their patients. When they enter a patient room with the red “COVID positive” sign outside the door, they don the full PPE. Nurses described it as hot and uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but think how some people describe a simple cloth mask the same.
The supervisors heaped praise on their staff and mentioned some of the little things they try to do to keep spirits up. They have a fluffy dog that visits to cheer them up, and the musicians who used to play for the patients now play for them since access to COVID-positive patients is strictly limited.
Most who get COVID-19 aren’t hospitalized. But the sickness and death and exhaustion inside our hospital is real. Supervisors can only do so much in a nationwide shortage of nurses and a continuing demand for care.
Some 85% of those hospitalized with COVID are not vaccinated. Those in the hospital who are vaccinated are patients with the kind of underlying conditions that now would qualify them for a third shot, Dr. Supriya Mannepalli told us.
One of the physicians told us a patient in need of intubation still refused to believe in COVID. Believe in it or not, they will do their best to treat you.
Our gaggle of press was finally escorted out of the crowded wing to make space for the family of the deceased patient to visit without our intrusion.
Back down the elevator, we headed toward the ambulance bay.
Standing on the sidewalk doing interviews with Dr. Mohak Davé, emergency medicine chief, and others, ambulance after ambulance drove up from counties across Northeast Georgia.
The bay was full and a couple of ambulances were lined up down the drive. One patient was wheeled up the driveway on a gurney into the emergency room. We were told a patient was wheeled in and back out for treatment in the ambulance. Davé confirmed the physicians sometimes come out to treat patients in the ambulance or in a bed in a hallway — unconventional places, as they put it. I asked how busy the ambulance bay usually is, and he said that as of late, it’s been like this — I probably saw almost 10 ambulances in the 20 minutes or so we stood there.
I don’t want to think about how long it might take my kid to get care if he runs his forehead into the corner of a drawer again, which required five stitches in the ER last summer, or falls out of a tree and breaks an arm. I’m thankful I don’t have a loved one requiring regular care.
Eventually, the doctors returned to their work, and we trekked back across the campus to our cars. I removed the tight N95 mask from my face and switched back to KN95 for the office.
We had heard from the hospital president and CEO, numerous doctors and nurses as well as the public relations team. Still, I could ask a thousand more questions. I wish I could be a fly on the wall of that COVID wing rather than the bull in a china shop that we were.
One nurse told us she cries every day. Maybe if we could witness those specific moments of emotion and share them with our readers, more would consider the vaccine.
Maybe hearing that most in the hospital are unvaccinated will make a difference. Yes, you can still get COVID after vaccination, but you’re much less likely to end up with a severe case.
Several from the health system thanked us for our work to inform the community. Our intrusion allowed us to tell stories about the nurses’ experiences, the COVID treatments being recommended and the work to provide beds for all the patients who need them — even if it means mobile units outside and doubling up rooms inside.
One also noted the outpouring of support from the community feels like it has waned since the start of this pandemic. Everyone’s tired of COVID, but still nurses and doctors show up every day to treat their patients. They’re concerned for their patients and balancing that with concern for their own wellness.
If you’d like to show your support, you can give to the COVID-19 Relief Fund at www.nghs.com/foundation/give/covid/. That money goes toward food, rejuvenation rooms and mental health support services.
Better yet, though, talk with your doctor about getting vaccinated. Davé told us the thing that has really moved people to get vaccinated has been a loved one or friend who died regretting they had not gotten vaccinated. Those stories are beginning to fill my Facebook feed. Young, healthy parents who were hesitant to get a new vaccine, who didn’t think they’d be the ones to get a severe case. Now their loved ones tell their stories. I pray that’s not what it requires to get our community vaccinated. We’ve all lost enough.
Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.