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'We can’t afford another COVID surge' - NGHS begs people to get vaccine, mask up
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center Registered Nurses Cheyenne White and Kim Metzdorf check on a COVID patient Friday, March 12, 2021, in the COVID critical care unit of the Gainesville hospital. - photo by Scott Rogers

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Fatigued physically and mentally, Northeast Georgia Health System staff made a plea for people to get vaccinated and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines amid a spike in COVID-19 cases 

“We are really, really trying hard,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s medical director of infectious disease medicine. “If there is one plea to the community, that is ‘go get vaccinated and please wear masks as recommended by the CDC and follow the other measures.’ Because if these numbers continue to increase — we’re close to 100 (COVID patients) today — our staff, they’re all tired. We cannot afford another surge to the peak where we went in the winter.”

The number of COVID-19 patients being treated has nearly tripled across Northeast Georgia Health System in the past week. Of those cases, 90% were unvaccinated.

NGHS reported 91 COVID-positive patients Friday, July 30, across its facilities, up from 32 a week previous. The average age of those patients was 60. 

The COVID-positive patient statistics are close to what they were back in early March and the previous November. The peak number of COVID cases at NGHS was 355 in January, but following vaccination efforts, numbers had dropped into the teens. Additional COVID data is available at gainesvilletimes.com/coronavirus.

Mannepalli said she and her colleagues nationally and internationally know that the delta variant of COVID is more contagious based on the research.

She said 60% of COVID patients at the Braselton hospital — 14 out of 23 — were in critical care along with 33% of COVID patients at the Gainesville hospital — 20 out of 61.

“The comment that I’m hearing from the providers is, patients are sicker,” Mannepalli said.

Jim Marinelli, NGHS director of talent acquisition, said turnover at NGHS, like all other health care providers, has been a problem. He said they are currently hiring for positions throughout NGHS, especially nurses. NGHS began Tuesday giving $400 to full-time and part-time employees who get vaccinated. 

Mannepalli said it would be difficult to find an apples-to-apples comparison between the delta variant and earlier strains of the coronavirus because we don’t know where we are in the curve of the surge.

She urged the community to raise their awareness of COVID symptoms and to not dismiss it as the common cold.

“There are people who are unvaccinated who are getting very, very sick,” Mannepalli said.

Mannepalli said there has been a pretty evident divide in outcomes between those vaccinated and unvaccinated. Those who are vaccinated may still develop symptoms but typically get better without hospitalization.

Visitation hours changed on Wednesday. COVID-19 positive patient visitations are by exception only. Exceptions could include a patient being near death. Other visitation rules are changing and could vary by campus.

Before the change, non-COVID-19 patients could have up to two visitors in their room at any time, 24 hours per day. Now, those patients can only have two visitors total per day, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

The CDC said this week that vaccinated people should now wear masks indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission of COVID. As of Friday, Hall County was considered a county of high community transmission, according to the CDC’s data.

“I think the data is pretty clear now that among those who are vaccinated when they develop the infection, even though it’s rare, their viral loads are also high enough that they can transmit it to others,” Mannepalli said.

In Hall County, the seven-day rolling average of PCR tests coming back positive was 10.3% Friday and the percentage of people vaccinated was 36%, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Statewide, 40% are fully vaccinated.

Older age groups are more likely to be vaccinated than their younger counterparts.

In Hall County, 96.7% of people aged 75-84 had at least one dose, and that number goes up to 100% for those 85 and older.

Conversely, 31.8% of Hall residents between 25-34 had at least one dose, and 38.5% of those 35-44.

Meanwhile the county closed its mass vaccination site at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus on Friday. The site, a coordinated effort between UNG, Hall County and the District 2 Department of Public Health, administered 20,000 vaccines. Demand for the vaccine was high when it was first released but has since waned dramatically. 

Anyone who received their first dose at the site who still needs a second dose can get that at the local DPH office at 1290 Athens St. in Gainesville. Walk-in appointments for either dose are available at the office.

Local leaders will be providing additional information on COVID-19 ina live webinar scheduled for noon, Thursday, Aug. 5.

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