Ask anybody in the health care industry and they will tell you that the top medical issue in 2020 was the COVID-19 pandemic - that's a no-brainer. But, even with the introduction of much-anticipated vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna, with others on the horizon, that doesn't mean the COVID crisis will disappear in the new year. In fact, local health care system experts agree the novel coronavirus will continue to impact the industry landscape for months to come.
"I've never experienced anything like this"
In July, Dr. Marti Gibbs became the President and Governing Board Chairman for Gainesville's Longstreet Clinic. At the time, the area had already experienced two peaks in COVID-19 activity and now another surge has gripped the region. Gibbs said while COVID-19 is a unique illness, dealing with the virus has impacted almost all other aspects of health care.
"With mental health in particular - we're facing a battle with that because of COVID-19 and isolation. We're seeing more depression and anxiety in patients," Gibbs said, noting that in her 20 years with the Longstreet Clinic, she's never had a more challenging year.
Then, said Gibbs, there's the fear factor. People are failing to go to the doctor for basic care because they are afraid of catching the virus.
"[For example] say you're at home and you're experiencing chest pains but you're afraid of going to the emergency room because of fear of contracting COVID-19," Gibbs said. "Or, you're not coming into the doctor for preventative care because of fear, so that may delay treatment or screenings for [things like] breast cancer."
Any skipped or delayed treatment could mean more severe health problems down the road, according to Gibbs.
Even with COVID-19 vaccines now being administered to local health care workers and emergency responders, Gibbs predicts COVID-19 will be the most prevalent health concern of 2021.
"I think it's still going to be problematic throughout 2021," Gibbs said. "[We'll have to] continue educating our patients about distancing and masking...and then [there will be] a lot of education around the vaccine and getting that and the importance of vaccinating our most at-risk patients."
"We're learning to manage care in more efficient ways than we've done in the past"
Michael Covert, the Chief Operating Officer for Northeast Georgia Health System, said he and his colleagues have "learned a lot" about how to take care of patients in creative ways in 2020 as the COVID pandemic has hit the hospital system in waves, not just once or twice, but three times.
Covert said for one thing, physicians have come to rely more on tele-health, so patients don't have to physically go to a doctor's office for treatment. NGHS has also relied more on home health care to keep patients away from crowded hospitals. Even with that, he said COVID-19 has created an increase in critical care at hospitals under the NGHS umbrella.
"As you know, we are at that critical point where just about all of our beds are used on any given day for truly critically ill patients," Covert said. Many of them have COVID-19, but others are patients who delayed surgery or other care because of a fear of contracting the virus.
Additionally, NGHS hospitals are accepting patients from smaller outlying hospitals that don't have the capacity or the ability to care for critically ill patients.
Being creative with current resources is part of managing the critical care of so many COVID patients - the average number has been about 300 per day in December.
"So, [we're] using our pandemic partners - meaning nurses who may not be trained in intensive care work but are very strong, surgical nurses - to assist our nurses in the ICUs," Covert said. Plus, each hospital is converting space for hospital beds to accommodate the high numbers of patients needing critical care.
"At any given time we may see anywhere from 20 to, now, almost 60 patients in the ED [emergency department] waiting for placement," Covert said, noting that they've had to use the emergency room to house patients in the past, but not at the same levels they are doing now. Other space that has been converted for bed space includes short-stay surgery, the endoscopy unit and even some nursing units.
Covert also noted that staffing has been an issue when employees themselves have become ill or when employee family members have come down with COVID and the employee has had to be out of work for quarantine purposes.
"I would dare say that none of our people have ever been through anything like this," Covert said.
"We know we're going to have to grow to meet the needs of the communities we serve"
Even as health system officials grapple with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, they know they must prepare for the future of the hospital system. To that end, on Dec. 3 they announced a major expansion for Northeast Georgia Medical Center's main campus in Gainesville. Two days before that, NGHS officials broke ground on a new medical plaza in Buford.
"We really are recognizing that with the growth in the respective communities in the Northeast Georgia area, we need to be able to respond to them," Covert said. "I think it also engages people when they see that we're looking towards the future."
Not only that, he said, expanding services into communities beyond Gainesville eases some of the stress on the NGMC main campus. He said that includes not only the new Buford facility, but also the planned expansions of the Lumpkin and Barrow County hospitals.
"By creating the kind of facilities we're going to have in those areas, we're really going to be able to respond to people's needs from an ambulatory standpoint in a much stronger and expanded way than those citizens have had in the past," Covert said. "If we can help people close to home with the highest level of care, then that's a direction that the health system needs to move and you'll see us do that in the months and the year ahead."