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The Northeast Georgia Health System has now been treating COVID-19 patients for five months, and “what began as an emergency response has really turned into a long-term strategy,” according to Melissa Tymchuk, chief of staff for the health system.
Some recent changes at the health system include allowing visitors for some hospital patients and allowing one person to accompany a patient to a prenatal visit.
As the hospital adapts some practices, though, it is preparing for an increase in patients that could come as students go back to school, the Labor Day weekend approaches and the flu season begins.
Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, chair of the hospital’s Infection Prevention and Control committee, said people should still follow precautions such as wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.
“It’s interesting how after any major holiday, we’ve seen our numbers spike up, especially after July Fourth and that long weekend,” she said on a Zoom call Monday, Aug. 24 with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.
NGHS saw an increase in COVID-19 patients following the Fourth of July. On July 4, the system was treating 73 COVID-19 patients. On July 18, that number was 114, and two weeks after that on Aug. 1, the system was treating 171 patients with the virus.
The system’s case positivity rate, the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive, also peaked about two weeks after the holiday weekend. On July 16, the system had a 28.65% positivity rate for the previous week.
“That’s what I’m really worried about, as we get after Labor Day weekend, we really are concerned about having a similar spike to that,” said Dr. John Delzell, vice president for graduate medical education and incident commander at the health system. “With the schools opening back up, the colleges opening back up, and people just traveling in for the holidays, that’s what we’re really going to watch. Over the next couple of weeks, that could lead to more people in the hospital.”
Mannepalli said the case positivity rate is a key indicator of the virus’ spread in the community.
“Even before we see that number of hospitalizations increase, an increase in the positivity rate kind of is an indicator of what is to come,” she said. “The lower the positivity rate, the better. The positivity rate is also an indicator of are we doing enough testing or not.”
On Monday, Aug. 24, NGHS had a seven-day positivity rate of 15.06%. The state’s rate is 10.2%. The World Health Organization recommends that case positivity rates should remain at 5% or lower for at least 14 days before an area reopens.
NGHS was treating 121 patients with the virus on Monday, Aug. 24. As of Monday, the system had discharged 1,894 COVID-19 patients and 240 had died since the beginning of the pandemic.
Mannepalli said most COVID-19 patients at NGMC are treated with remdesivir, with steroids and plasma as additional options. The system has about a one to two-month supply of remdesivir, and health care providers have found it is best to start patients on remdesivir early, she said.
She also said while wearing a face shield can protect the wearer because the virus could enter the body through the eyes, masks should still be worn in additional to a face shield to cover the nose and mouth.
The hospital is also preparing for flu season and encouraging people to get a flu shot.
“I know there are some skeptics out there about the flu vaccine, but it is still the best prevention that we have to prevent flu,” Mannepalli said. “I receive the question every time, the strain of flu is different from the one in the vaccine. … Even if the strain is different, the flu vaccine will prevent or reduce hospitalizations.”