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COVID-19 numbers declining some locally. But here's why flu season concerns local health leaders
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center Nurse Manager Betsy Ross visits the hospital's new mobile COVID-19 unit Monday, July 20, 2020. The unit designated for COVID-19 patients will remain near the center’s north tower for up to the next two years. - photo by Scott Rogers

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COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on the decline locally, but health care providers are preparing for an influx in patients as flu season approaches. 

Northeast Georgia Health System was treating 84 COVID-19 patients at its facilities on Thursday, Sept. 17. That number marks a slight decrease from two weeks before, when the system was treating 102 patients on Sept. 3. Two weeks before that, on Aug. 20, NGHS had 114 COVID-19 patients. 

Hall has seen a total of 8,587 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, as of Thursday, Sept. 17. There have been 619 cases appearing in the past two weeks, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. For the two-week period before that, from Aug. 20 to Sept. 3, Hall saw an additional 1,083 cases, according to the department.  

NGHS has seen increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations following holidays such as Memorial Day and Fourth of July, but Dr. John Delzell said that 10 days after Labor Day, the system had not yet felt the impact of the holiday weekend.  

“I’m cautiously optimistic right now,” Delzell, the health system’s vice president for graduate medical education and a COVID-19 incident commander, said Thursday. 

The return of students to school had also not resulted in a spike in hospitalizations, Delzell said.  

Hall County Schools had 30 employee and student absences on Sept. 17 due to COVID-19, according to the district website. That number was 25 on Aug. 24, the first day of school. Gainesville City Schools is posting weekly updates on COVID-19 cases in its schools, with the Sept. 14 report showing four cases in the school system. That system began in-person instruction Sept. 8. 

Case positivity rates have also declined at NGHS recently. As of Thursday, 13.25% of the COVID-19 tests performed by NGHS in the past seven days had come back positive. That number had peaked July 16, when it was 28.65% and was at its lowest May 13, at 5.27%. Georgia’s case positivity rate was 9.3%, while the World Health Organization recommends that governments stay at or below 5% for at least 14 days before reopening. 

“Our hope is that people will follow the guidelines that the state and (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have put out — wearing a mask, social distancing, washing hands, using hand sanitizer,” Delzell said. “All those things are extremely helpful in decreasing the rate of transmission.” 

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But the second wave of COVID-19 cases the system has seen in the late summer and early fall surpassed previous peaks during the first wave of the spring, Delzell said. The system hit its highest peak of COVID-19 patients on Aug. 10, with 179 patients. The highest number reported in the spring was 159 patients on April 29.  

“We’ve dropped down quite a bit from there, but we’ve been pretty stable in the mid- to upper 80s and low 90s (in patient numbers) for a week or two,” Delzell said. “That’s significantly higher than we were after the first peak. We got down into the 40s and 50s after the first peak, but we’ve never gotten that low after the second peak.” 

Delzell said a priority for the health system over the next weeks and months will be controlling influenza, as the season for that illness begins.  

“We expect over the next month to start seeing patients getting hospitalized with influenza, which has a lot of similar symptoms and similar issues as with COVID-19,” Delzell said. “Our biggest concern is watching the increase in influenza cases while we still have a pretty steady volume of COVID patients.” 

From August 2019 through July 2020, Northeast Georgia Medical Center hospitals in Gainesville, Braselton, Dahlonega and Winder had 234 hospitalizations due to the flu, with 230 of those occurring between November and March, The Times has previously reported. The hospitals also saw more than 1,700 additional emergency visits for the flu that did not result in hospitalization, with most of those between November and March. 

The health system is working to promote flu vaccines, Delzell said. And for the upcoming holidays, people should plan to adapt their normal gatherings, he said. “People are going to need to think about wearing a mask inside,” Delzell said. “If they’re meeting with groups that are not in their normal personal daily level and they have other family coming from other places, they’re going to have to really think about socially distancing and wearing masks in those settings, even when they’re inside and in their house.”