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Northeast Georgia Health System sees new COVID-19 peak, urges precautions to slow spread
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A patient is wheeled into the Northeast Georgia Medical Center emergency room Monday, July 20, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

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COVID-19 patient numbers at the Northeast Georgia Health System have now passed their previous peak after declining and then plateauing through May and June. Now, the hospital is encouraging the community to take precautions while health care providers prepare for a second wave of COVID-19 patients. 

The health system was treating 155 patients at its facilities on Friday, July 24, according to data on its website. Patient numbers were slightly down from Thursday, when the system was treating 168, its new peak. The previous peak had been 159 patients, which it reached on April 29 and then matched on Wednesday. 

“Back in June, things had calmed kind of calmed down. We never went down to zero (patients). We were still seeing a lot of patients in the hospital that had COVID,” said Dr. John Delzell, vice president for graduate medical education and incident commander at the health system. “And then, as people have gotten out and about more, people out in the community are not wearing masks and are out more, that definitely starts to increase the transmission in the community.” 

Delzell said the hospital noticed the increase shortly after the Fourth of July weekend, and although it cannot be definitively attributed to the holiday, many people in the community did start spending more time in public around then.  

On May 1, the health system was treating 146 COVID-19 patients, and two weeks later, the number was down to 95. By May 29, it had declined again, to 58 patients systemwide, and numbers stayed relatively steady for a few weeks, with the highest number at 75 on June 24, according to hospital data. 

Then, numbers rose throughout July, climbing past 100 for the first time in several weeks on July 17, when NGHS was treating 106 COVID-19 patients. 

The data includes Northeast Georgia Medical Center hospitals in Gainesville, Braselton, Winder and Dahlonega, as well as New Horizons Limestone, a long-term care facility, and Laurelwood, an inpatient behavioral health facility. 

NGHS has been seeing a higher percentage of COVID-19 tests come back positive, Delzell said, with recent percentages fluctuating between about 18 to 25%. On a call with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce July 7, Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, chair of NGMC’s Infection Prevention and Control committee, said 12 to 14% of tests were coming back positive at that time, and in June, about 5 to 7% of tests had a positive result. 

A new mobile unit opened Tuesday outside the North Tower of NGMC Gainesville, providing the hospital with an additional 20 beds to treat COVID-19 patients. The unit, constructed out of multiple shipping containers, stayed busy in its first week and was housing about 18 patients as of Friday, Delzell said.  

As the hospital prepares for more COVID-19 patients, the community can keep numbers down by following public health guidelines, Delzell said. 

“The most important thing is (to) wear a mask. Don’t go out if you don’t have to, particularly older people or people that have any chronic diseases or are immunocompromised,” Delzell said.