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‘I am asking you today to dig deep’ health system CEO tells staff in plea for more frontline help amid COVID surge
The emergency department at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

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The Northeast Georgia Health System is asking for all hands on deck to get through the weekend as COVID-19 cases surge at a faster rate than the previous January peak and clinical leaders report patients getting sicker faster. 

As part of its Disaster Response Plan that has been in effect since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the health system’s CEO Carol Burrell sent out an email to nonclinical and clinical staff late Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 25, asking employees to shift schedules and add hours to help frontline workers get through the weekend. The health system needs about 170 additional people per day this weekend to provide the most effective care, Burrell wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Times. 

“As soon as we solve for that need, we’ll start planning for next week and beyond,” Burrell wrote. 

As of Thursday morning, Aug. 26, the health system had 268 COVID-19 positive patients in care, according to data published on the system’s website. One month ago, there were 53 patients in care, showing a steep increase as the delta variant continues to spread in the area. The health system’s coverage area continues to show low COVID-19 vaccination rates with 38% of Hall County residents fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to the Department of Public Health, and some surrounding counties showing lower rates. 

“Please know that I am asking you today to dig deep, perhaps deeper than you ever have before, to do all that you can to help each other,” Burrell wrote to the staff. “That may mean working nights or weekends, rescheduling your personal plans, shifting responsibilities at home, arranging different childcare or making other sacrifices. I recognize everyone’s situation is unique, and I am not asking you to compromise your own mental or physical health. What I am asking you to do is truly examine what you can do to help our frontline caregivers.”

Nurses and other health care workers are having to care for patients in unconventional places already including hallways, ambulances and tents set up at the health system’s Gainesville and Braselton campuses. In many cases, a single critical care nurse must care for four patients at a time, which Burrell wrote is “not sustainable.”

“For all intents and purposes, our hospitals are full,” she wrote. 

Open beds remain hard to find, with the latest data showing 16 emergency patients waiting for the bed they need at the Gainesville campus and only 14 total beds available for all Gainesville patients.

“Our clinical leaders tell us many of these patients are also getting sicker more quickly, speeding up the need for critical care,” Burrell wrote.

Health system workers were instructed to call their Pandemic Staffing office if they could help, either by working in a different role temporarily or working extra shifts of four, six, eight or 12 hours. Those working beyond regular hours will be eligible for additional pandemic pay, which varies based on role and area of care. 

The health system is getting 10 additional staff from the National Guard, expected to arrive Thursday, Aug. 26, to help in their emergency departments and with respiratory therapists in Gainesville and Braselton, Dr. John Delzell, incident commander for the health system, wrote in a statement Tuesday, Aug. 24. 

The health system released a video message from Burrell on Thursday afternoon. 

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