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After being designated a hot spot and making headlines in national media, Hall County’s cases of COVID-19 now seem to be slowing, according to officials with Northeast Georgia Health System.
The health system plans to return to a normal surgery schedule next month and is lifting some visitation restrictions.
Still, officials urged continued caution.
“This is time not to loosen our guard, because if the numbers are declining, they’re declining for a reason,” Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, chair of Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Infection Prevention & Control Committee, said on a call with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. “They’re declining because we as a community responded the way we should, by of course focusing on hand hygiene, wearing masks and maintaining the social distance.”
The system was treating 61 patients with COVID-19 Wednesday, and 35% of the ventilators were in use, according to data shared on its website. A month earlier, on April 27, NGHS was treating 141 COVID-19 patients and was using 39% of its ventilators. While cases at NGHS facilities have been declining, ventilator use has remained relatively steady.
Another 687 patients with COVID-19 have been discharged from the system’s facilities and returned home, while 78 have died.
Officials with the system encouraged the community to continue taking precautions as Hall County has the fifth highest number of cases in the state and 15th highest cases per capita in the state, with 1,163.56 cases per 100,000 people.
Mannepalli said people in the community should continue taking precautions like wearing masks and washing hands, and “this is still not the time for those who are elderly and have low immunity to be out and about.”
It is possible for cases to increase again, Mannepalli said.
“I really hope we’re all proven wrong, but we’re going to continue to prepare as there could be a possible surge in the fall or winter,” she said.
Hospitals in the system, which include those in Gainesville, Braselton, Lumpkin County and Barrow County, are fluctuating between 55% and 75% capacity, according to Tracy Vardeman, chief strategy executive for the system.
A medical unit from the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency has been installed at NGMC Gainesville and will be operational in the next few weeks. Technical difficulties have delayed its opening, Michael Covert, chief operating officer of NGHS, said.
It will be staffed by about 100 health care professionals provided by the state through Jackson Healthcare, a company that has partnered with the state to recruit medical staff.
“It’s really made a difference for our staff,” Covert said of the unit’s arrival.
Covert said NGHS will maintain its expanded ICU capacity as hospitals expect a continuation of COVID-19 cases through the summer and a possible resurgence in the fall. The system increased that capacity to 134 beds from 91 across its hospitals.
“We want to plan for this continued care that’s necessary. … But at the same time, how do we stand ourselves back up for business as usual?” Covert said.
If a patient needs care, they should seek that care, even if their health concern is not related to COVID-19, Covert said. He said patients can use telehealth options if they would prefer to speak with their provider remotely, and NGHS expects to continue and possibly expand those remote treatment options.
The hospital has begun expanding its surgical capacity and will return to the normal schedule Monday, June 1, Dr. J. Clifton Hastings, chief of medical staff, said.
“We have the capacity and the (personal protective equipment) and support to do that now,” he said.
Hastings said the hospital has been “cohorting” patients.
“All the surgery patients go to one part of the hospital. All the cardiac patients go to another part. The cancer patients go to a certain area. The virus patients go to a certain area,” he said. “By cohorting this, we’re able to strategically put our supplies where needed and open up some other areas.”
Hastings said the hospital was running about 80% of its normal volume for surgeries Wednesday. Visitation restrictions could also change soon, he said.
As some other businesses move to reopen, Mannepalli said people should monitor their symptoms, even if they do not have the virus.
“Given that there’s a lot of asymptomatic transmission, at some point, all of us are considered exposed, which means that we all should be monitoring symptoms daily, not just when we are told that we have had contact with someone who is positive,” she said.
Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and loss of taste or smell, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.