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NGHS hits record high number of COVID-19 patients, near bed capacity
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center's mobile COVID-19 unit on Oct. 15, 2020 - photo by Thomas Hartwell

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Northeast Georgia Health System reported a new record Tuesday, Dec. 1, of confirmed COVID-19 positive patients being treated at its facilities.

According to NGHS data, there were 181 confirmed patients being treated with another 52 patients awaiting test results. There were 106 patients at the Gainesville hospital and 49 patients at the Braselton hospital with the rest at other facilities, according to the data.

"We're close to the point where we're going to either have to send patients elsewhere or come up with some different ideas,” said Dr. Clifton Hastings, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s chief of medical staff, on Tuesday. “We've stretched and built about as much as we can."

Hastings said his concerns have been on the staffing and bed capacity for the hospital in what he has called a “constant battle to stay afloat.” Hospital officials have looked at the surgery schedule to see which procedures can be canceled or delayed.

"I had a nurse tell me last night. She wasn't in tears, but I could tell she was close, and she said, 'I just don't know how long this is going to last,'” Hastings said. “But then she looked up and she said, 'But I'm not quitting. I'm not going anywhere.'"

According to the NGHS data, there are 40 available beds across the Gainesville, Braselton, Barrow and Lumpkin campuses. At the Gainesville hospital, there are two available beds in the intensive care unit and seven total available beds.

The number on Tuesday broke the old record of 179 patients, which was set on Aug. 10.

The state has provided more than 100 health care professionals including nurses and respiratory therapists, and the hospital is still using a 20-bed mobile unit.

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"We're requesting further support at the end of the month. We hope that the state's going to be able to provide that," Hastings said, adding he is hopeful and confident that the support will continue. "If we don't get the state support and we're down 100 nurses, that's going to really hurt us."

Dr. Zachary Taylor, the director of District 2 Public Health, said there has been a steady increase in Hall County in recent weeks. There have been 444 cases per 100,000 people in Hall County over the past two weeks, and surrounding counties are experiencing similar rates, according to the Department of Public Health data.

"Based on all of that, it does look like Hall is entering a time where it's considered an emerging county that we expect to see increases within the county because of the more recent steady increase in cases," Taylor said.

Taylor and Hastings are still advising people of the same health guidelines: wear a mask in public, stay home if sick, use 6 feet of social distance and avoid large gatherings.

District 2 Public Health officials said they believe the spread of the virus is mostly coming from small gatherings of family and friends.

Though he considered the terminology of "superspreader" a word used more by the media than health professionals, Taylor said he does not believe such an event has happened in Hall County.

"We are concerned that the Thanksgiving holiday and all the small gatherings that occurred during the Thanksgiving holiday may amplify the transmission within the community,” Taylor said. “We may see an increase in cases and a surge following that holiday because of all the gatherings of extended family, the celebrations people had with friends, people traveling in from outside of the area to visit family (and) children coming home from college to see their parents over the holiday."

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine candidates have been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization. Taylor previously told The Times he estimated vaccine doses could arrive as early as mid-December.

Hastings said they are still using the Braselton, Barrow and Lumpkin campuses when needed and transporting as appropriate. The labs have been consistently sending back test results in roughly 24 hours, though it is sometimes longer on weekends, he said.

One of the issues hospital officials are facing is transitioning some hospital patients to another care facility — whether it is a rehab facility or nursing home — because of the capacity at these facilities and the wait times for insurance companies to clear patients for discharge. Hastings said they are having conversations with the insurance commissioner Wednesday to see about what can be done to streamline this process.