Coronavirus, Health

South Georgia Hospitals Feel Strain As COVID Cases Skyrocket

Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, Ga. has passed its peak for ICU patients and is pleading with the local community to get the vaccine.
Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, Ga. has passed its peak for ICU patients and is pleading with the local community to get the vaccine.
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To describe the current COVID surge, hospital leaders in South Georgia are using strong words, such as ‘‘scary,’’ ‘‘fear’’ and “overwhelmed.’’

The state’s COVID-19 map shows most of the hottest spots for the latest case surge are in the southern part of Georgia. And some hospital officials in the region say the impact is worse than the previous three COVID surges.

“It’s really bad,’’ Robin Rau, CEO of Miller County Hospital in southwest Georgia, said Thursday. This surge “seems worse than others. We got overwhelmed so quickly.’’

Statewide, cases reported daily have been steadily climbing, a trend that has been sparked by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

Public Health officials on Thursday reported almost 6,000 new cases, with COVID hospitalizations exceeding 2,900 statewide, up 1,000 in the past week.

A glance at vaccination rates in South Georgia counties that have reddish shades on the state Public Health COVID map (indicating high infection rates) reveals that all are below the state’s average of 41 percent of residents with shots. A couple of the counties, in fact, are as low as 22 percent.

Hospital officials say the widespread shortages of hospital personnel are making the crisis worse.

“Every hospital in Georgia is critically short of staff,’’ Rau said Thursday. “And now we have a state that’s so poorly vaccinated.‘’

“Somehow we’ve got to convince the general public they are causing this’’ by not being vaccinated, she added.

She said the COVID pandemic, which goes back to early 2020 in the United States, has been “like a wound that won’t heal.’’

Southeast Georgia Health System, meanwhile, is pleading with community members to get shots.

“We’re tired, and we’re at our wits’ end,’’ said Jan Jones, director of patient care services for the system, which operates hospitals in coastal Glynn and Camden counties. “As soon as a patient is discharged from our critical care unit, or worse, is deceased, there’s another patient to put in that bed. It’s like a revolving door that we can’t stop.”

She told GHN on Thursday that “patients are getting sicker faster. They’re sicker than the first surge. Their conditions are deteriorating fast.’’

The Brunswick hospital has passed its pandemic peak of ICU patients, and is now at 24. Hospitalized patients are younger, on average, than in other waves of COVID, Jones said.

“I’ve had people in their 20s and 30s on vents [ventilators] fighting for their lives,’’ she said. ‘‘All of them are unvaccinated.’’ The system’s Camden hospital ICU is full as well.

Staffing “is a huge challenge,’’ Jones said. The latest surge “is a huge strain of the nursing staff, respiratory therapists and the lab.’’

This COVID wave is worse than the others, she said. “It’s more aggressive and is spreading rapidly.’’

Clinch Memorial Hospital, in Homerville, is seeing a similar increase of COVID patients, including children.

“We are already experiencing difficulty getting patients out of our facility that need a higher level of care,’’ said hospital CEO Angela Ammons. The hospital’s chief nursing officer “called over 20 hospitals to get a critical care patient out Wednesday and was unsuccessful,’’ Ammons said.

Some vaccinated staff have come down with COVID, she added. Such “breakthrough’’ infection cases are rare, representing 0.1 percent of Georgians who have been vaccinated.

Ammons has released a PSA video urging people to get vaccinated.

“Our retail pharmacy has been busy administering vaccines to the public, most who were staunchly against getting the vaccine prior,’’ she told GHN.

“We are preparing for the worst and really do not know what to expect to happen. I have full confidence in my team here to handle any situation that we are given, but there is a new level of fear that I haven’t seen before among them.’’

Ominous trends

In Albany, where COVID cases swamped Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital early in the pandemic, the number of hospitalized virus patients has risen fast.

“Of the 18 patients admitted Monday, 17 were unvaccinated,’’ said Phoebe Putney spokesman Ben Roberts. All hospitals in the region are being hit hard, he said.

“Here we are again,’’ he said. “It’s scary to think of where it could go.’’

“Hospitalizations haven’t increased this rapidly since the earliest days of the pandemic,’’ Roberts said.

Scott Steiner, the Phoebe CEO, called the latest wave “COVID-21.”

“It’s disheartening to know that we could have stopped COVID if more people had been vaccinated,’’ Steiner said. “When the pandemic first started, there wasn’t much we could do but wash our hands, socially distance and wear masks around others. The vaccine gave us a way out, but we missed our window of opportunity, and now hospitals throughout the state are filling up with COVID-19 patients once again.’’

Vaccine demand rising

Louisiana, reeling from the spike in cases, has seen a higher demand for vaccinations, CNN reported.

That same trend has occurred in the health district that covers 14 southwest Georgia counties. “Our vaccine numbers have been up over the past 10 days to two weeks,” said Dr. Charles Ruis, the district health director. “We’re seeing high school students trickling in” to get the shots, he said. “We’re glad some people have changed their minds.”

The South Georgia impact, meanwhile, nearly mirrors the case explosion in North Florida.

“Viruses don’t pay attention to borders,’’ said Colin Smith, a Georgia State University public health expert.

“Many folks who live or work in South Georgia live or work in Alabama or the Florida Panhandle. Many folks went on Independence Day or pre-back-to-school trips from rural Georgia to Destin or Panama City,’’ Smith said.

“Those places [in Florida] have not been engaging in masking or social distancing requirements indoors, and the South Georgia resident population is less well vaccinated than those in the urban areas or even some of the vast suburban parts of Northern Georgia. Even if South Georgia unvaccinated folks did not travel over July to what were then Delta variant hot spots, they have been in contact with folks who did go there in the past 3 weeks,’’ he said.

One South Georgia physician, Dr. Zita Magloire of Cairo, called the local COVID situation “terrible. Worse than ever.’’

Her remedy? “Get vaccinated, wear masks, social distance.’’

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