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Here's what's changing and what concerns remain as COVID cases drop
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center Registered Nurses Cheyenne White and Kim Metzdorf check on a COVID patient Friday, March 12, 2021, in the COVID critical care unit of the Gainesville hospital. - photo by Scott Rogers

Having a granddaughter during the pandemic, Dr. John Delzell experienced what many others have faced during the last year: restrictions on visiting loved ones due to COVID-19.

“I know what an impact it is to not be able to go in there and see your kids and your grandkids and for siblings to go in and see their new baby brother or sister,” said Delzell, the incident commander for Northeast Georgia Health System.

Starting Monday, March 29, NGHS changed its visitation policies to allow two identified support people at all times in labor and delivery for non-COVID patients. There are also times now in the morning and evening to give families greater flexibility in when they can visit.

NGHS’ seven-day rolling average of people testing positive for COVID-19 has been under 5% since Thursday, March 25. The rate on Tuesday, March 30, was 4.51%.

The 5% threshold has been a number cited by the World Health Organization that the positive rate should remain under “for at least two weeks before governments consider reopening,” according to an article from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Delzell said the goal is to maintain this level for at least four weeks, which is considered to be two full incubation periods for the COVID virus.

“If we get to that point, then we’re hoping that we can open up visitation a little bit more, and that will really indicate that the virus has been really put into a little bit of a lockdown itself,” Delzell said.

Now down drastically from the 300-plus patients a day, NGHS had 43 confirmed positive patients Tuesday being treated across the health system with 40 more patients awaiting test results.

ICU beds available, however, were still in the single digits Tuesday, with six beds available in Gainesville and nine beds at the Braselton hospital.

“At the peaks of COVID, we had just a larger portion of the patients in the hospital (who) had COVID because we were really slowing down on other things,” Delzell said. “We weren’t doing surgery. We weren’t doing procedures, all that kind of stuff. As COVID goes down and we start to pick up all those cases that were kind of delayed because of that, it balances it out. So it will still look very full, because this time of year we generally are pretty full anyway.”

Rob Fowler, the CEO of Turner, Wood & Smith Insurance and the chair of Hall County’s COVID Community Leaders Coalition, said he feels the coalition is showing that when the different sectors of the community — businesses, the public sector and the health care system — work together, it can “address some of our biggest challenges in the community.”

“I really think probably the most important thing we can do now is just to continue to communicate to the community, to businesses, to workers about the benefit and the safety of the vaccine,” Fowler said. “Everything I’m hearing is that there’s still that segment of the population that … have concerns about the vaccine.”

The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce hosted a webinar Tuesday with NGHS leaders, District 2 Public Health and the Longstreet Clinic called “COVID-19 One Year Later: What Does Life Look Like Now?”

"As we're getting toward spring break ... I think about Easter Sunday and churches. We just don't want to see those numbers go back up,” NGHS CEO and President Carol Burrell said toward the top of the webinar.

With more people getting vaccinated and the prospect of more travel options opening up, NGHS officials are still reminding people to follow public health recommendations of keeping social distance in public, avoiding large gatherings and washing hands frequently.

“Whether that was Memorial Day or the first spring break or the Fourth of July, what we’ve seen is that every time we’ve had (a holiday), we’ve tended to have a spike, and that has probably been mostly related to people going out and doing things that they weren’t doing, being exposed to more people, that kind of thing,” Delzell said.

District 2 Public Health Director Dr. Zachary Taylor said they do know that the so-called UK and South African variants of the COVID-19 virus are in the community. Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group infectious disease specialist, said random samples were sent for testing, and some of them have tested positive for the variants.

“We know that they’re there,” Delzell said. “It doesn’t really change a whole lot that we do. There’s no different treatment. The vaccines appear to be effective for them.”

Taylor said detecting which variant is causing the infection is not routinely done and requires additional lab testing that could take up to a week.

"In general, at least for the state laboratory working with the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), they try to take a sample of the positive specimens to determine whether or not the variant is circulating within the county,” he said.

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