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What NGHS is offering employees to get vaccinated. Plus, visitation changing again
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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

While COVID-19 case numbers are rising in Hall County and in Georgia, the percentage of people getting vaccinated has stagnated. 

At the Northeast Georgia Health System, 50% of all employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of July 29 — much higher than the county vaccination rate of 36% — but the largest employer in the county still isn’t where it wants to be.

Director of Public Relations Sean Couch said that starting Tuesday, July 27, NGHS began giving $400 to full-time and part-time employees who get vaccinated. Employees who have already received the vaccine received the same cash reward, and those employees entered a raffle Tuesday in which two employees won $5,000, as a way of rewarding those who got it early, Couch said. Employees are eligible for the incentive if they get vaccinated between now and the end of September, he said.

The employees not included in the incentive program are contractors not under NGHS’s employment, physicians and advanced practitioners. 

“The vast majority (of physicians and advanced practitioners) are members of our medical staff, which is an independent body,” Couch said. “We’re going to let them make that decision on their own. They’re taking that up later this month if they want to consider an incentive as a group and what their incentive might look like.”

Currently, NGHS data shows that while only half of all employees have been fully vaccinated, 78% of “employed providers” have been, and that category includes physicians and advanced practitioners.

NGHS officials talked about doing an incentive program like this with peer systems in other parts of the state, Couch said. Other health systems reported similar stalling around the 50% mark, Couch said, and incentives helped push up the percentage of vaccinated employees. 

“Our hope is that — we’ve held out until we got to 50 (percent) — that now by offering the incentive we’re hoping we’ll see an increase,” Couch said. 

Though cases have gone up and NGHS has had more COVID-19 patients recently, the health system has not had to change any of its operations. During peak COVID-19 times, NGHS had to stop performing elective surgeries for periods of time, Couch said. 

“The concern with that is when you stop those for a period of time — combined with people who are now concerned and are not coming to the hospital, period, and are just putting things off — is then their condition just worsens,” Couch said. “They then come in when we’re … ‘normal’ and they’re so much worse off that their recovery process is longer, their treatment process is longer. It’s typically more expensive.” 

Visitation hours changed on Wednesday, July 28. Before the change, COVID-19 positive patients could have two visitors wearing full personal protective equipment at a time. Now, visitations for COVID-19 positive patients are by exception only. Exceptions could include a patient being near death, Couch said. 

Before the change, non-COVID-19 patients could have up to two visitors in their room at any time, 24 hours per day. Now, those patients can only have two visitors total per day, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

Pediatric patients who are COVID-19 positive before the change could have up to two visitors in their room at any time, wearing personal protective equipment, but now they can only have two people designated to visit for their entire stay. For example, their mother and father could visit them, but no other relatives would be allowed to visit during their stay in the hospital.

Some visitation hours may also differ by campus and buildings within each campus.

As of July 29, there are 83 COVID-19 positive patients in NGHS, and 92% of those patients are unvaccinated. The average age of those patients is 59 years old.

It’s possible that other companies could follow the health system’s lead in incentivizing employees to get shots. NGHS officials will meet with the Greater Hall County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Aug. 5, to report their latest COVID-19 updates, Couch said.