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NGMC Gainesville plans to add tower with helipad, additional 150+ beds
A parking deck, a helipad and an expanded emergency department are just pieces of Northeast Georgia Health System’s plan for a new tower at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.
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Behind the scenes of COVID-19 at Hall County hospital
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center staff wait May 15, 2020, for recently released patients of the hospital to arrive for drive-thru testing for COVID-19 on the Gainesville campus. - photo by Scott Rogers

The outward signs of a pandemic, especially the masked-up workers, were in every corner of the hospital.

And then there was the unseen, pent-up emotions from those on the front lines battling COVID-19.

In a tour of Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville last week, Elizabeth Larkins, nursing director for critical care, saluted staff.

“They are the ones who are with (patients) when they die, giving them that love up to the very last minute,” she said, surrounded by staff in personal protective equipment. “We’re getting through this together.”

The hospital opened its doors to The Times and other media on Friday, May 15 — the day of Gov. Brian Kemp’s visit to a COVID-19 medical unit being built on the grounds — giving journalists a behind-the-scenes look at operations, including the lab, emergency room and floors where patients are being treated.

Optimism bubbled among workers at the hospital that the pandemic was beginning to loosen its grip, but staff, many wearing full protective equipment, were still in battle mode.

“Fortunately, we’ve been able to stay ahead of the curve, with the resources we’ve gotten from the state and local businesses, sharing PPE and other things,” said Dr. J. Clifton Hastings, chief of medical staff. “We are now seeing a slight decrease in the curve, so that’s very encouraging.”

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Recently released patients of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center are tested May 15, 2020, for COVID-19 at a hospital drive-thru testing site on the Gainesville campus. - photo by Scott Rogers

Numbers from the Georgia Department of Public Health showed that as of Tuesday, May 19, Hall had 2,191 confirmed coronavirus cases and 40 deaths.

Also, NGHS is treating 99 patients with confirmed cases — a steep drop from the peak of 159 on April 29.

Hastings said the pandemic has forced adjustments at the hospital.

“We are learning a lot. A lot of the things we took for granted have changed and we have to do things in a different way,” he said. “So, we’re living and learning. That’s what you have to do in any business, but certainly (it’s true with) health care with all the unknowns we’re facing, at this point.”

Much of the change has been physical in nature, with the addition of mobile units and the construction of the medical unit, which is scheduled to open May 26. 


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A Northeast Georgia Medical Center staff member cleans a face shield at a drive-thru testing location for recent hospital patients May 15, 2020, on the Gainesville campus. - photo by Scott Rogers

The mobile units have been used for those presenting with respiratory conditions in order to prevent exposure of other patients and staff. 

“We wanted to get them up early so we could start putting patients through it before we reached any potential surge or maximum capacity, so we could work out our processes,” said Dr. Corey Duncan, medical director for NGMC Gainesville’s emergency department.

“We wanted to make sure what we were doing was streamlined and providing the best care with the resources we had.”

The unit yet to open will be used to treat noncritical COVID-19 patients.

“It also gives us more beds and staffing should we have to get creative, should the numbers start to rise again,” Carol Burrell, CEO of the Northeast Georgia Health System, has said.

Also, potential COVID-19 patients are seen in a special, negative-pressure room in the emergency department. Like other treatment areas in the hospital, the door is branded with a bright red “Restricted Area No Access” sign.

“We see patients with respiratory symptoms,” said Leah Wallace, nurse manager for emergency services. “In this area, we have brought additional supplies and equipment so that nursing staff can stay in this area and not have to come in and out.”

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Dr. J. Clifton Hastings of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

The hospital has testing done at an Alpharetta lab, but last month, the hospital was able to more quickly test people showing more serious signs of the coronavirus. 

“We’re a trauma center, so there are some who can’t wait the 24 or 48 hours it takes to send (specimens) to Alpharetta,” said Jo Brewer, executive director of laboratory services.

Results come back in as soon as 45 minutes, she said.

But supplies of the test, made by California company Cepheid and cleared by the Food and Drug Administration in March, are limited.

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Northeast Georgia Medical Center's Director of Critical Case Services Elizabeth Larkin stands May 15, 2020, alongside a wall of staff PPE items stored in labeled plastic bags. - photo by Scott Rogers


“We only have enough to do about 50 (tests) a day,” Brewer said. “They’re still ramping up production.”

Another 15-minute test has emerged on the market, but researchers have reported that its results miss up to half the infections caught by the Cepheid test, which Brewer described as “a good one.”

Supplies, such as masks and other protective equipment, are stored in a room at the hospital where Vanessa Cortez works as a “strider,” or someone who helps deliver supplies throughout the hospital.

“Volume has gone up, but our inventory control specialists have been on point with the changing amount of donations we have received and the supplies we have to order,” she said. “It’s really heartening to see the community donating and telling us we’re their heroes.”

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A medical professional on the Northeast Georgia Medical Center COVID-19 floor dons a mask May 15, 2020, before entering the area where coronavirus patients are placed. - photo by Scott Rogers

When the work becomes too draining, hospital staff can draw support from NGMC’s spiritual care team.

“Just like the rest of the hospital, we have had to be flexible in doing the work we do,” said Trey Morrison, pastoral education manager, in a garden area just outside the hospital chapel.

The hospital has an internal phone number family members and staff can call “to talk to somebody who is trained to (give) emotional and spiritual support,” he said.

Chaplain interns also serve both COVID-19 patients and family, who can’t see each other because of the disease.

“It’s been an interesting learning process,” Morrison said. “The students are having some great conversations with people.”

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Northeast Georgia Medical Center's Director of Critical Case Services Elizabeth Larkin and staff work in full PPE on the hospital's fifth floor where COVID-19 patients receive care. - photo by Scott Rogers


“As far as our team of chaplains in the hospital,” he added, “one of the unique challenges we’ve had is to provide support for people at the end of life. We’ve set up a family support team where we use iPads (tablets) and Zoom (teleconferencing) … so they can see their loved one. If we have to do any rituals of closing or support, then we do that there.”

One thing the hospital has done to boost morale is “Code Believe,” or playing the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’” over the public address system whenever someone with COVID-19 has been discharged.

“It’s a positive for me … because we are on the front lines and it’s scary at times,” registered nurse Missy Scott said in the critical care unit. “Hearing that (patients) are being discharged is encouraging for us.”


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Staff don full PPE at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville while working May 15, 2020, on the COVID-19 area of the hospital. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center's Director of Critical Case Services Elizabeth Larkin stands alongside a wall of staff PPE items stored in labeled plastic bags May 15, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Staff on the fifth floor of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville keep their PPE items inside bags hanging in the hallway May 15, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Medical staff go about their duties May 15, 2020, at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center as Hall County's per capita rate of COVID-19 cases remains highest in North Georgia. - photo by Scott Rogers
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A patient is moved May 15, 2020, from an elevator at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville by a medical tech dressed in PPE. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Hospital administration work inside a command center May 15, 2020, inside the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Arrows on the floor of a dressing room at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center direct staff members where to go during their shift in the Gainesville hospital's COVID-19 area. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center staff members travel through the hospital hallways largely absent of everyone but staff on May 15, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Medical staff go about their duties May 15, 2020, at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center as Hall County's per capita rate of COVID-19 cases remains highest in North Georgia. - photo by Scott Rogers
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A Northeast Georgia Medical Center staff member walks past a wall filled with staff PPE bags May 15, 2020, along the hallway of the COVID-19 patient area in the hospital. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Director of Patient Experience Heather Slutzky provides executive-level supervision and leadership for programs devoted to the welfare of patients at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Ambulance technicians enter the Northeast Georgia Medical Center North Patient Tower with a gurney May 15, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers
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A Northeast Georgia Medical Center staff member wears PPE from head to toe while working May 15, 2020, in the COVID-19 patient area of the hospital. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center Invasive Cardiology Director Kevin Meyer stands inside the hospital's cath lab May 15, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers
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A Northeast Georgia Health System staff member leaves the North Patient Tower on May 15, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers
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