While COVID-19 hospitalizations at Northeast Georgia Medical Center have been plateauing in recent weeks, the percentage of tests coming back positive is increasing.
Health care providers are still encouraging people to follow precautions such as staying home if possible, wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and washing hands often.
In June, 5 to 7% of COVID-19 tests were coming back positive, according to Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, chair of NGMC’s Infection Prevention and Control committee. Now, 12 to 14% of tests are positive.
Many younger people are testing positive for the virus, Mannepalli said during a virtual update with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, July 7.
“These young people can go and infect older and high-risk people,” she said.
Statewide, the age group with the highest amount of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic was the 18-29 age group, which had 22,678 cases as of Tuesday, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. That age group had had 15 deaths as of Tuesday.
The age group with the highest number of deaths statewide since the beginning of the pandemic was people 80 and older. As of Tuesday, that age group had seen 5,065 cases and 1,155 deaths statewide.
As of Tuesday, Hall County had seen 3,419 cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
The anti-viral drug remdesivir has helped keep deaths relatively low, Mannepalli said.
“If we start it early, we have seen that it does help patients get better and not need that ICU stay or ventilator,” she said.
Mannepalli said that while some COVID-19 patients are being treated using plasma, the majority are taking remdesivir, in combination with steroids and other medications.
On Tuesday, the Northeast Georgia Health System was treating 61 patients at its facilities, according to data on its website. As of Tuesday, the system had treated and discharged 1,054 COVID-19 patients, and 120 patients had died.
Hospitalizations have remained relatively steady in recent weeks, and the health system is treating about half the amount of COVID-19 patients it was in early May.
Dr. Clifton Hastings, chief of staff at NGMC, said with the return of elective surgeries and other procedures, the hospital has been at about 70 to 80% capacity. Tuesday was a particularly busy day, Hastings said, with the hospital at 95% capacity.
While the temporary medical units installed outside NGMC will be used soon, they are not yet ready to open, Mannepalli said.
Hastings said some patients are not seeking medical care if they need it due to concerns about the virus, but patients should still go to the emergency department, an urgent care or their health care provider if needed.
“Unfortunately, we still see some patients delaying care, things like heart attacks, strokes and other medical illnesses,” Hastings said. “Early diagnosis and treatment is important.”
While ventilator use has increased in the health system, the increase is not due to COVID-19, Hastings said. As of Tuesday, more than 40 patients were using ventilators, although only about five were COVID-19 patients, he said. Hastings said that during the summer, the hospital sees an increase in trauma cases and other issues that require ventilator use.
NGHS officials still encourage the community to wear a mask when around others, practice social distancing and wash or sanitize hands often.
Mannepalli said public health guidance recommends that students wear masks as they return to school and that employees wear masks when around others in the workplace. Any face covering is better than nothing, so cloth masks are acceptable, she said. NGHS has begun a social media campaign with the hashtag #WearAMask.
People should still follow precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, Mannepalli said.
“While it may be true that we are testing more and we are identifying the disease early, and we may be seeing that the hospitalizations have flattened, the virus has not gone into the latent phase,” she said.
Mannepalli said with some cases, the patient knows that a family member or coworker was sick and can more easily identify how they could have been infected, but some patients cannot pinpoint how they contracted the virus. About 20 to 40% of people with the virus do not know they have it, she said.
“That’s the reason we’re all wearing the mask,” Mannepalli said.
And Mannepalli said some patients will test positive for the virus two or three months after their first positive test, although it is still unclear if that is because of remnants of the virus in their body or due to a new infection. It is also still unknown how long antibodies last, she said.