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The latest on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected finances at Northeast Georgia Health System
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Northeast Georgia Health System President & CEO Carol Burrell speaks via Zoom video conferencing Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, during the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce Economic & Political Forecast at the Lanier Technical College Ramsey Conference Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in plummeting revenues for the Northeast Georgia Health System as elective surgeries were halted, and the system has had to “get creative with our supply chain,” CEO Carol Burrell said Tuesday, Aug. 11. 

Burrell spoke about the health system’s challenges through the coronavirus pandemic at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s Economic & Political Forecast at Lanier Technical College’s Ramsey Conference Center.  

The Times spoke in June with health system officials about the financial impacts of the pandemic, at which point NGHS expected revenue losses of $200 to $250 million through September. NGHS now expects an estimated $150 million shortfall in net revenues this budget year, Burrell said. 

Brian Steines, NGHS chief financial officer, told The Times on Tuesday that those original revenue projections were based on losses in April and May. "Once we resumed elective surgeries and other services in June, we saw revenues return to more normal levels," he said. 

The crisis “has really forced us to think quickly and respond very efficiently,” Burrell told those gathered in person and virtually to hear the forecast. “Our team has been looking at things and changing on a daily basis, so our communication has reached an all-new level.” 

Burrell said halting elective surgeries in mid-March, phasing them back in two months later and then fully restarting them in June has presented a key challenge for system hospitals to make money.  

“That is how we generate our bottom line and how we reinvest in this organization and this community,” Burrell said.  

But, she said, the health system is “optimistic with the (elective) surgeries coming back.” 

Burrell also reviewed the trends in the number of COVID-19 patients being treated at system hospitals, noting that hospitals seem to be hovering at a new, higher threshold than a peak the system saw in April. 

The hospital system reached a peak of 159 patients on April 29, after which daily COVID-19 patient counts decreased to between 46 and 70 through late May and mid-June, according to data from the health system.  

Cases began to trend upward again later that month. 

"Unfortunately, after the July Fourth holiday, we reached an all-new peak and are (treating) anywhere from 160 to 170 (patients),” Burrell said. “It’s really going to be our long-term strategy now – how we deal with this on a day-to-day basis.” 

On Monday, Aug. 10, the health system reached a new record for COVID-19 patients being treated, with 179. The following day, that number had dropped to 160. 

The health crisis also has forced the system to examine telehealth opportunities, allowing patients to have digital visits with their doctors. 

“In six days, we put together strategies that we had been talking about for months, and it’s gone extremely well,” Burrell said. “In fact, our consumers are telling us, ‘Don’t take it away. We like this.’” 

She also spoke about restricting visitation as a precaution against the coronavirus, saying that the system is “working hard to try to find support” for those who have been isolated from family members because of the virus. 

“Having family is important … and when they’re not here, especially with certain types of patients, it can be very stressful on the family and the caregivers,” Burrell said.  

Overall, the CEO said she is “optimistic we are going to be able to pull out of this.” 

“We were strong going into it,” she said. 

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The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce holds its Economic & Political Forecast Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, at the Lanier Technical College Ramsey Conference Center. - photo by Scott Rogers