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Record number of patients on ventilators as NGHS battles delta wave of COVID-19
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The Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville capacity is being tested as COVID-19 cases surge in the region in late August 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

As local hospitals battle a delta-driven wave of COVID-19 infections, the number of patients on ventilators has far surpassed the prior peak, suggesting the delta variant is more virulent. 

The previous record for ventilator usage in the Northeast Georgia Health System was set in late January at 69%, and in the past few days, ventilator usage has soared as high as 84% — about 75 patients compared to 92. In that time, the total number of ventilators has remained constant at 110, according to NGHS spokeswoman Beth Downs. 

“The patients coming into the NGMC hospitals now seem to be much more sick than we’ve seen in previous COVID waves, and the delta variant is the reason for the difference,” Dr. Larry Dudas, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s interim medical director of critical care medicine, said in an email. “The total number of COVID-19 positive patients hasn’t yet reached the numbers we saw in January, but we have significantly more patients in critical care now than we’ve ever had in the history of our hospitals.” 

NGHS expects to surpass its previous record of COVID-positive patients this month. The health system reported 325 patients as of Sept. 10, only 30 shy of the 355 peak in early January.

“Sometimes there is so much damage to the lungs that patients simply can’t come off the ventilators,” Dudas said. “We see this much more frequently with COVID-19 than we see with other diseases.” 

Ventilation, in this case, refers to intubation — whereby a tube is inserted into the airways and a ventilator takes over a person’s breathing. Ventilators are not used for NGHS patients who receive oxygen via a mask or nasal cannula. 

But health system officials are more concerned about a shortage of staff than a potential shortage of ventilators. 

“We will be able to add more ventilators and beds to our hospitals, but we won’t always be able to add staff, nurses and doctors,” Dudas said. “If we ever reach a point where we don’t have the ability to care for everyone who needs our help, it’s much more likely to be because we don’t have enough staff, nurses and doctors than because we ran out of ventilators.” 

Two weeks ago, NGHS CEO Carol Burrel warned that “hospitals are full” and pleaded with workers to pick up the slack of being short staffed. In early August, NGHS reported being short hundreds of nurses. With a huge influx of patients and a sparse staff, NGHS is inching ever closer to making triage arrangements, according to Dr. Deepak Aggarwal, chief of medical staff at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. 

“We continue to work tirelessly every day to avoid the need to implement such guidelines,” Aggarwal said in an email. “Thankfully we have not needed to enact such a plan, but our system has never been as stressed as we are now.” 

Health officials continue to urge people to get vaccinated. As of Sept. 10, 94% of COVID-19 critical care patients were unvaccinated. Only 40% of Hall County residents are fully vaccinated. 

“The vaccine is the best weapon we have against the virus now — especially from a severe case, and we are still urging everyone to get the vaccine if they haven’t already,” Dudas said. 

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