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NGHS getting creative, but says there’s no ‘critical lack of access’ as it treats 71 COVID-19 cases, 80 more potential cases
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Health care workers enter the mobile unit at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center Friday, March 27, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

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Across its four hospitals, Northeast Georgia Health System is caring for 71 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and 80 patients under investigation for the virus.

NGHS spokesman Sean Couch said it was not possible to break those cases down by county. The health system has hospitals in Gainesville, Braselton, Lumpkin County and Barrow County and serves much of Northeast Georgia. 

The Department of Public Health tracks cases by county of residence and updates numbers twice daily. As of noon April 9, there were 238 COVID-19 cases confirmed from Hall County, though DPH has noted there’s a delay between cases being confirmed, entered in the system locally and confirmed by the state. Not all cases require hospitalization.

Hospital officials confirmed in a conference call Wednesday, April 9, there have been patients with COVID-19 who have died, though they could not confirm the virus killed them. The health system declined to provide an estimate or exact number.

Hospital officials said they have increased the total number of medical-surgical beds from 474 to 522. Intensive care unit beds across the Gainesville, Braselton and Barrow campuses are also up from 91 beds to 125 beds.

Increasing bed capacity has been possible by expanding into other areas of the hospital that have not been used as clinical rooms in the past.

The availability of personal protective equipment, however, is fluctuating daily.

“Generally, we’re having about 10-day, two-weeks supply in most areas now except when we’re dealing with gowns. In gowns, we are literally going from day to day and being very creative,” NGHS chief operating officer Michael Covert said. “We’re also having to be very creative with our surgical masks, as we’ve now required everyone who comes in contact with us or is a staff member to wear their mask in the organization as well.”

The hospital earlier provided instructions on how community members can sew and donate masks.

April 23, or the fourth week of April, could be a peak for hospital capacity, according to some models, particularly those touted by Gov. Brian Kemp in recent press conferences.

“Bear in mind that all of this modeling is dependent upon our citizens doing the recommended social distancing and limiting the spread effectively,” NGHS cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon Dr. Clifton Hastings said.

There has been a noted decrease in “normal” traffic to the ER and hospital, which has allowed NGHS to absorb some of the increased capacity from COVID-19 patients.

“The critical care units are probably more full than I can ever remember seeing them; however, we still have capacity there. The (operating rooms) and our surgical services are significantly decreased because we’re not doing elective surgeries, so we’ve got some capacity there,” Hastings said. “Basically, we’re flexing and moving almost every day to adapt to whatever the needs are.”

Couch didn’t say exactly how many beds are in use but said NGHS still has capacity and is “not at a point where there’s a critical lack of access yet.” 

“I think what everyone is concerned about is just the uncertainty of not only the timing of the surge but how intense will that surge be when it happens,” Couch said. “We are doing everything we can to prepare for that, but there’s no way we can plan for every single outcome. At some point, there is a possibility that we could reach a point where our resources are taxed and we’re overwhelmed.”

Covert said NGHS is currently able to handle the volume and activity “relative to the management of the patients who are testing positive for the virus or might actually have it” with capacity beyond that.

“The real question will be: When we hit the top of that curve, will we have that capability and the capacity to meet all of those patients at that moment? And that’s something that we’re gearing up for as best as we can at the moment from what we think that we will see, and it really depends on which model that you believe in,” Covert said. 

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