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Patients move into Laurelwood gym COVID-19 overflow area, as leaders plan for vaccine distribution
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Northeast Georgia Health System has set up cots in a gym at its Laurelwood facility Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, as the system sees a new record of COVID-19 patients and is running out of space. The first patients began moving into the space on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

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The first patients were moved Wednesday, Dec. 16, into overflow space in a gymnasium on the campus of Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, according to Northeast Georgia Health System officials.

The health system began setting up the overflow space at Laurelwood, a behavioral health facility, last week.

Wes Garrison, NGMC’s associate chief nursing officer, said the overflow area was functional on Monday, Dec. 14, and the system was placing patients around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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Garrison said the overflow section would primarily be used for patients who are still COVID-19-positive but are experiencing less severe symptoms and may be waiting to be transferred to another facility.

“Sometimes because they are positive, we are delayed in being able to transport back to their original place of origin, whether that’s a nursing home or some kind of long-term facility,” Garrison said.

There are currently 16 cots in the gym, which has the capacity to build out to 30 cots, if necessary, Garrison said. He said there is no estimated length of stay for patients who would be moved to this area.

NGHS reported Wednesday there were 262 confirmed COVID-19 positive patients being treated across its facilities with another 37 patients awaiting test results. NGHS’ record was set Monday, Dec. 14, when there were 265 patients.

According to the data, there were 47 available beds across the health system Wednesday, with 27 available beds at the Gainesville campus and 16 beds at the Braselton hospital.

Garrison said he was hopeful that the overflow area would allow health care workers to keep more of the beds inside the hospital campuses for patients needing more critical care. 

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Hall County EMA Director Casey Ramsey is working with the Department of Public Health coordinating how nearly 1,000 frontline EMS, fire and police employees are going to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as doses are expected to arrive. - photo by Scott Rogers

Vaccine rollout

Hall County Emergency Management Agency Director Casey Ramsey said the anticipated arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine doses was a “welcome sight.”

He and Department of Public Health officials are discussing how to administer doses to nearly 1,000 first responders across the county.

“We’re encouraged with what that means for us,” Ramsey said. “We know that we still can’t let our guard down and that it’s still going to be several more months in the making, but this is a really good step toward the end of this.”

Though it hinges on when the vaccine arrives and how many doses are received, Ramsey said they could optimistically begin vaccinating next week.

According to the Department of Public Health’s vaccine rollout plan, the first phase of vaccine administration will be broken into two rounds. The first group will be for health care workers as well as the staff and residents at long-term care facilities, Ramsey said.

“EMS and the fire personnel that respond to EMS calls will be included in that first round,” he said. “What we’re doing is as those vaccines begin to arrive, we’re working with a plan with public health to be able to vaccinate the EMS and fire personnel.”

The second half of that first phase will include law enforcement first responders.

“Regardless of what organization you work for, whether it is the city or the county, we’re going to have a centralized process with District 2 Public Health to take care of our first responders,” Ramsey said.

Public health officials will determine how much of the doses are allocated to these groups as the shipments continue coming in, Ramsey said.

“We’ll prioritize the most at-risk first responders, those that are actually running the medical calls (and) transporting the patients,” he said.

District 2 Public Health spokesman Dave Palmer said they created a list of EMS and other first responders across their 13-county area who will need the vaccine.

“We have not finalized plans on administering the vaccine but have explored a few viable methods of getting the (first) responders vaccinated,” Palmer wrote in an email.

Some ideas discussed have been to administer the doses at the first responders’ facilities or to have the first responders come to the Department of Public Health’s clinic. A third option, particularly in larger counties, would be to have the first responders report to an offsite location.

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Northeast Georgia Health System has set up cots in a gym at its Laurelwood facility Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, as the system sees a new record of COVID-19 patients and is running out of space. - photo by Scott Rogers