Metro Atlanta hospital systems are uniting to deliver a public message about the increasingly grim picture on the COVID front lines.
Representatives from the Wellstar, Piedmont, Emory and Grady systems – often competitors in non-pandemic times – along with those from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Gainesville-based Northeast Georgia Health System, will address the media Thursday morning on the crisis surrounding the latest surge.
Since the pandemic began, the metro health systems have been working together at the CEO and chief medical officer levels in communicating about virus-related problems. Many of their hospitals reported severe ER crowding Wednesday, as well as diversion of ambulances due to inability of some facilities to take in more patients. Other large hospitals across the state reported similar crunches.
The united messaging among business rivals underscores the severity of the increase in COVID-19 infections, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. Hospitals are also dealing with major shortages of nurses and other workers as well.
Last week, Savannah-area public health officials convened a similar meeting with representatives from the major hospital systems in an eight-county area to discuss conditions in their facilities.
And it’s not just hospitals in Georgia teaming up in reporting COVID pressures. Officials from several Oklahoma hospitals gathered in Oklahoma City this week to make an urgent plea for Oklahomans to wear masks, get vaccinated and keep the state’s health care system from collapsing.
Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who analyses COVID trends in Georgia, said Wednesday that for hospitals, “this is a desperate time that calls for desperate measures. I wouldn’t be surprised if we heard a plea [from Georgia hospital officials] for mask wearing and increased vaccinations.’’
State public health officials Wednesday reported a one-day increase of COVID cases of more than 8,000.
Hospitalizations for COVID climbed again, reaching nearly 4,800.
“Our skyrocketing hospitalizations are really striking,’’ said Dr. Melanie Thompson, an Atlanta physician. “During the winter surge, we went from about 1,300 to about 4,700 hospitalizations in roughly 10 weeks. This time, we’ve done it in under a month, and the upward slope is still steep.’’
The COVID hospitalizations are overwhelmingly of unvaccinated people, Thompson said.
“We are at an extremely dangerous place right now, with our health systems threatening to be overwhelmed, some for the very first time during the pandemic.’’
Georgia has the eighth-highest per capita rate of COVID infections among states over the past 14 days, according to a New York Times listing Wednesday.
An ‘untenable’ predicament
Phoebe Putney, one of the biggest COVID hot spots nationally when the virus emerged last year, said Wednesday that it’s caring for 180 COVID-19 patients in its hospitals, just four shy of the peak it reached in April 2020.
Its main hospital is postponing all elective surgeries to make additional clinical staff available to focus on the hospital’s COVID response.
“Our current situation is untenable,’’ said Dr. Jason Williams, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital’s medical director of perioperative services. “By postponing elective cases, we will free up operating room resources to best serve our community in this time of desperate need.”
Dougherty County, despite its heavy burden of COVID, has just 36 percent of residents vaccinated, below the state average of 42 percent.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced that he is directing all nursing homes to require their staffs to be vaccinated against COVID if the facilities want to continue receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding.
That’s a powerful way of exerting pressure on such facilities. Losing payments from the two federal programs would essentially force many to shut down or drastically cut services.
Recently, three large long-term care companies in Georgia – PruittHealth, Community Health Services of Georgia and A.G. Rhodes – announced vaccination requirements for their workers.
But a recent AARP report said that just 48 percent of nursing home staffers in Georgia had been vaccinated.
Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association, an industry trade group representing nursing homes, said of the Biden order:
“We appreciate the administration’s efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccinations in long-term care. Unfortunately, this action does not go far enough. The government should not single out one provider group for mandatory vaccinations. Vaccination mandates for health care personnel should be applied to all health care settings. Without this, nursing homes face a disastrous workforce challenge.
“Focusing only on nursing homes will cause vaccine-hesitant workers to flee to other health care providers and leave many centers without adequate staff to care for residents,’’ Parkinson said in a statement.
Worker shortages have hit medical facilities of all types across the state. This week, Gov. Brian Kemp said he was adding state funds to supply more temporary workers to hospitals hit hard by the COVID surge.
But Dr. Harry Heiman, a public health expert at Georgia State University, said what Kemp and state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey need to do is take stronger steps to turn the COVID tide.
“It is both unfortunate, and I would say, irresponsible, that they are not utilizing the two strongest public health tools available – vaccine mandates for state employees as well as faculty, staff, and students at state universities and mask mandates in high-risk indoor settings, again, including all schools and state universities. These two measures alone could make a significant difference.’’