As the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Northeast Georgia Health System facilities approaches another peak, staff are struggling to keep up with the demand for care.
As of 4 p.m. today, the latest numbers from the hospital system showed 284 COVID-positive patients hospitalized across the eight NGHS facilities. The last peak was in January with 355 patients.
Most NGHS staff members agree that the Delta variant is causing this wave of the pandemic to have a deadlier effect than previous ones.
Doctor Deepak Aggarwal, chief of Medical Staff for Northeast Georgia Medical Center, pointed out several differences in patients during this wave of the pandemic than previous ones.
“They’re getting sicker and at the same time they’re also, unfortunately, dying faster,” he said. “The median age for our patient population that’s COVID-positive is 61, so half of the patients are below the age of 61, unlike the other surges we saw, where the majority of the patients were above the age of 60.”
In order to make room for incoming patients, some floors of the hospital have been transformed into COVID Medical Intensive Care Units, or MICUs. One of the floors used to be for medical oncology, but currently holds 34 patients suffering from COVID-19, according to an NGHS spokesperson.
Each of the rooms on the floor is negative pressure to help with treatment of the virus. Currently each ICU nurse is responsible for one to three patients.
The sudden increase in patients is taking an emotional, mental and physical toil on a group of medical staff that is already stretched thin.
Amber Rampey, a critical care nurse at NGMC Gainesville, was stationed in one of the COVID MICU units until just last week, when the stress became too much.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” said Rampey, sobbing. “I’ve transitioned to another unit now because it was just too much…I’ve been doing it for twenty months and I just can’t.”
Rampey said she currently works twelve-hour shifts, four days a week. However, at one point in the pandemic, she was working five days each week when there was no one else to fill in.
Elizabeth Larkins, the executive director of Medical Nursing Services, shared Rampey’s frustration and heartache.
“This [wave] is made particularly difficult because it feels unnecessary, if people would just get vaccinated, we wouldn’t have to be doing this,” said Larkins. “We would have no COVID patients, or almost no COVID patients, in critical care, dying, if people would just take the vaccine.”
Fortunately, troops from the National Guard have been on standby to help hospital staff where needed and hospital administration is utilizing emergency staffing.
Doctor John Delzell, vice president and Incident Commander, explained emergency staffing is essentially pulling staff from other areas of the health system that can help where needed.
“We have thousands of people who work here who are not nurses or doctors, so what we’ve asked them to do is think about, what are some of the other things you can do,” he said. “Some of that is maybe filling in for our clinical staff who are being pulled back into bedside care and some of it is just doing things that they wouldn’t normally do.”
Unfortunately, the flow of incoming patients does not show any sign of letting up. Doctor Mohak Davé, medical director for the NGMC Emergency Department, said roughly 90 ambulances arrive daily with more patients.
That number is in comparison to 50 to 60 ambulances that used to come in daily prior to the pandemic.
“What the public has to understand is that our resources are tight and our volumes are very, very high,” said Davé. “We are doing our very best to triage, which means to sort, based on their acuity, so the sickest are getting seen first, and we are getting to every one of our patients, but there are delays.”
Despite the high number of patients, Davé and the rest of the medical staff at NGHS encourage patients to not delay in coming to the hospital for care if they are suffering a medical emergency.
“If you need medical care, we want you to come to our ED,” said Aggarwal. “It is very important that we take care of you in a timely fashion and not wait, so if you need medical care, we need you to come and be respective of the wait line.”