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4 takeaways from Hall chamber webinar on COVID-19 vaccine
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Susan Stone gives COVID-19 vaccines Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, at the Northeast Georgia Health System Corporate Plaza during the first NGHS vaccine clinic for those 65 and older. - photo by Scott Rogers

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The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce hosted a webinar Wednesday, Jan. 20, featuring Northeast Georgia Health System CEO Carol Burrell, other NGHS staff members and District 2 Public Health Director Dr. Zachary Taylor. Here are some of the takeaways from the event:

Holiday exposures to virus led to more cases, hospitalizations

“There is no doubt that in fact those holiday gatherings that we really tried to educate our community on definitely caused our numbers to increase far beyond anything that we’ve seen before,” Burrell said. “It’s been a rough few weeks.”

NGHS reached an all-time high Jan. 8 of 35.79% of COVID tests coming back positive for its seven-day rolling average.

According to the health system’s data, there were 307 confirmed COVID-19 positive patients being treated across the NGHS facilities Wednesday, Jan. 20, with another 70 patients awaiting test results. The number of COVID-19 positive patients has remained above 300 since Jan. 5, though it is lower than the current record of 355 also set Jan. 8

The seven-day average of positive tests has also dipped down to 25.46% as of Wednesday.

“We know that we’re not out of the woods yet,” Burrell said.

Burrell said they still want people to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety guidelines of wearing a mask in public, keeping 6 feet of social distance and washing hands frequently.

A third of COVID-related deaths at NGHS happened in last six weeks

"A third of the deaths that we've seen from COVID have happened in the last really six weeks," said Dr. John Delzell, NGHS' incident commander. "If you think about it,  as the number goes up and the number of people who are very sick and in the ICU (goes up) and that kind of thing, that leads to more people who are not able to recover from the disease."

According to NGHS data, there have been 719 COVID-related deaths across NGHS facilities since the beginning of the pandemic last year. There have been 111 COVID-related deaths in just 12 days since Jan. 8.

Delzell said hospital officials were reaching capacity at the morgues at the Gainesville and Braselton hospitals, which can hold at most 20 bodies and eight bodies, respectively. The health system recently requested a mobile morgue trailer from the state’s emergency services, though it has not been used.

“We wanted to have it available and be able to really continue to care for the patients as they pass in a respectful and caring manner as patients transition to the funeral homes,” Delzell said.

Dr. Larry Dudas said the mortality rate now is similar to what it was when they first started seeing COVID cases early last year, but the “sheer volume of patients that we’re seeing with COVID is the reason that we’ve been having more patients not make it.”

Demand for the vaccine is outpacing the supply coming

"The current supply that we're receiving as our allotment from the state doesn't meet th demand that we have out there," Taylor said.

According to NGHS data, the health system has administered 4,080 first doses and 2,310 second doses to its nearly 10,000 employees. The NGHS vaccination clinics for those ages 65 and older started Jan. 11, and more than 2,000 doses have been administered since then.

Taylor said they have been vaccinating at the health department and have made arrangements for off-site clinics in elderly communities.

The Department of Public Health said the state receives 80,000 doses of each week.

"We're set up to do more,” Taylor said. “We're set up to even establish a second vaccination site outside of the health department, which will allow us to do more vaccines a day. But again, as Northeast Georgia (Health System) and Longstreet Clinic will tell you, the problem now is getting supply of the vaccine to all of us."

Taylor said residents are not required to get the vaccine in the county where they live.

"We do try to restrict it to residents of Georgia since it's Georgia's allocation, but if you live in Hall County, you can get vaccinated in any other county in Georgia if you can get an appointment," he said.

Taylor said he did not know when the rollout plan will move to the next phase.

"If we think the task in front of us with the over 65 (population) is an enormous task, the next phase will be even larger because it includes all of these critical infrastructure (sectors),” he said. “It will probably include people who have risk of severe disease because of medical conditions. It's going to be a struggle."

NGHS doctors hopeful about antibody treatments

Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s medical director of infectious disease medicine, discussed the development of antibody treatments that might help curb the rising hospitalizations.

The Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency use authorization Nov. 21 for casirivimab and imdevimab, which the agency said are two monoclonal antibodies “designed to block the virus’ attachment and entry into human cells.”

"These antibodies, if given early, reduce the virus load in the body, which then means that they prevent the disease from progressing,” Mannepalli said. “These are antibody infusions that should be given to those with mild to moderate disease, who are not sick enough to be in the hospital, whose oxygen is not low, and if given early, they actually prevent the disease progression (and) prevent hospitalizations. I'm really, really excited and hopeful that these antibody therapies are going to help save more lives and prevent hospitalizations."

Mannepalli advised people to consult their doctor to learn if they are eligible for the treatment, which can be performed in an outpatient capacity. 

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