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Internal hospital email shows patient with coronavirus started seeking treatment March 4 and symptoms didn’t require testing

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A patient who has tested positive for COVID-19 had previously been to two Northeast Georgia Health System facilities for treatment, beginning March 4, and was discharged without COVID-19 testing, with the hospital noting the patient’s symptoms did not require testing, according to an email sent March 15 by Carol Burrell, president and CEO of NGHS, and obtained by The Times.

The email was directed to system employees and obtained by The Times from multiple sources.

Hospital officials on Tuesday said the internal message was sent to urge the staff to take advised precautions as the virus officially had made its way to Hall County and hospital.

Chief Operating Officer Michael Covert said testing has been limited in the region, state and country, but “many” have been requesting to be tested. 

Gov. Brian Kemp said Saturday during a press conference that the state can process 100 per day. He hopes to double that by the end of this week. Kemp also said local transmission was evident and he encouraged social distancing, which includes avoiding gatherings and keeping a safe distance of as many as 6 feet from others.

Covert said the hospital’s challenge is to be able to get enough kits.

“We’re continuing to press our vendors for support in that regard so we have enough kits and testing,” he said, noting other hospitals in the state are in the same position.

The hospital is following testing guidelines coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which are changing as conditions change. 

The patient first visited Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton’s emergency department on March 4, and according to the email, symptoms at the time did not show a need for coronavirus testing, and the patient was discharged.

Guidelines were updated by the CDC on March 4 to include a wider group of symptomatic patients, but it’s not clear whether the hospital staff had the updated guidelines at the time the patient visited. 

Guidelines at first focused on those who had traveled to affected regions. Now, it is believed the virus is being transmitted locally.

The patient later went to the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group urgent care location in Braselton on March 10, and according to the email, symptoms at the time again did not show a need for coronavirus testing. The patient was then discharged from the urgent care.

On March 12, the patient went to a primary care provider who is not employed by NGHS, and that provider ordered a COVID-19 test, according to the email. That test came back positive Sunday, March 15.

The patient is one of two being treated at the hospital’s Braselton location, but the patient’s county of residence could not be disclosed, according to the health system’s director of public relations, Sean Couch. The state Department of Public Health has reported one positive case from Hall County. The condition of the patient also cannot be disclosed without a name due to HIPAA privacy laws.

According to the email, NGHS leadership was contacting staff in departments and areas that were potentially exposed to the virus by the patient’s visits to NGHS facilities.

“More details are being shared with employees in those areas about what next steps they need to take,” Burrell wrote. “At this point, all employees who are asymptomatic are expected to report for all scheduled shifts as planned per CDC guidelines.”

Covert said the hospital is working to protect its staff and that they are sensitive to the situation and rising to the occasion.

“I need them working here and being able to take care of lots of people,” he said. The hospital is fully staffed, he said Tuesday.

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