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NGHS hospitals ‘beyond capacity,’ deaths climbing, staff 'exhausted'
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Northeast Georgia Health System has set up cots in a gym at its Laurelwood facility Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, as the system sees a new record of COVID-19 patients and is running out of space. - photo by Scott Rogers

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As Northeast Georgia Health System continues to set new records with the number of patients being treated for COVID-19, hospital officials said deaths are also climbing.

NGHS reported a new high of 355 patients Friday, Jan. 8, along with another 62 patients awaiting test results, across its facilities. Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville had 212 confirmed patients Friday, and the Braselton hospital had 94. 

The rest of the positive cases were spread across the Barrow and Lumpkin hospitals, the Laurelwood behavioral health facility and the New Horizons-Limestone long-term care facility.

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As of Friday, there have been 608 COVID-related deaths at NGHS, according to the health system’s data.

Dr. Deepak Aggarwal, the NGHS chief of medical staff, said more than 150 COVID-related deaths -- or roughly 25% -- of all the COVID-related deaths seen during the pandemic have come in the past 30 days.

“The average of all the COVID-19 tests we administer coming back positive is around 34%, which is a record high and approaching double the state average,” Aggarwal said in an email. “We’re caring for around 300 COVID-positive patients in our hospitals each day, which is also a record level. We’re beyond capacity now – caring for roughly 200 more patients than usual this time of year, which is already a typical peak season.”

Aggarwal said prediction models show the latest surge peaking in mid-January which means the “next few weeks will likely be among the most difficult to manage.”

According to NGHS data, there were 700 occupied beds and only 23 available beds Friday. Of those available beds, 15 of them were at the Gainesville hospital and four were at Braselton.

NGHS created an overflow area for patients in the Laurelwood gymnasium which saw its first patients in mid-December. Hospital officials said the 16 cots would primarily be used for patients who are still COVID-19-positive but are experiencing less severe symptoms and may be waiting to be transferred to another facility.

Though the number fluctuates, NGHS spokesman Sean Couch said the 16-bed space is usually full.

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Andy Cason, a respiratory therapist at Gainesville's Northeast Georgia Medical Center, pulls up his sleeve Thursday, Dec. 17 at the hospital. - photo by Nick Watson

“The most pressing concern at this point is having enough staff to care for people who need our help,” said Dr. John Delzell, NGHS incident commander, in a statement. “We’re thankful for additional staff the state has helped supply, but the demands are starting to surpass what they can provide. Meanwhile our employed staff are exhausted, and a fair number have been sick as well, so we’re doing all we can to support them.”

Mallory Blount, press secretary for Gov. Brian Kemp’s office, said Kemp’s office has had several conversations with NGHS officials this week “to ensure that they have the resources that they need.

“We've approved additional staffing requests from NGHS over the last two weeks to further support their ongoing efforts,” Blount wrote in an email. “Governor Kemp stands ready and willing to use any available resources to help healthcare providers fight COVID-19.”

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