By Sharon Hall & Greg Finan, Jr. / The Nugget
Cautious optimism is beginning to take hold for local healthcare professionals.
That’s due to a steady three-week downward trend of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Northeast Georgia’s four hospitals, which peaked at 159 on April 29 and as of Friday stood at 59, according to Dr. Donna Whitfield, Chief of Medical Staff of North Georgia Medical Center Lumpkin.
“We’re not sure we’re out of the woods yet, but we hope we see the clearing ahead … if everyone in the community continued to take simple precautions to keep themselves and others safe,” she said.
Over 500 people tested positive for COVID-19 and have been treated and released by Northeast Georgia Health System (NGHS) from mid-March through Friday.
“Those are lives saved thanks to the care our nurses, physicians and employees are providing and supporting every day,” Whitfield added.
NGHS has hospitals in Lumpkin, Gainesville, Braselton and Barrow. Officials began preparing a response to the pandemic in January, setting up a COVID-19 Task Force. That task force includes experts for across the system in infection prevention, emergency preparedness, critical care, respiratory services, lab services and others.
“The group has led our organization’s larger operational response when we started seeing our first cases in mid-March,” Whitfield said. “The Task Force members play key roles in our Incident Command Center, which is open daily right now to manage our resources and clearly communicate changes as the situation evolves.”
NGHS took steps to prevent being overwhelmed by a steady rise in cases between mid-March and the end of April. It increased the number of ICU beds from 91 to 134 in Gainesville and Braselton. All four hospitals increased the number of beds available in med/surg from 474 to 522.
Of the 108 ventilators available across the system, “usage has consistently ranged between 30-45 percent,” Whitfield said. “That includes ventilators used to help patients with and without COVID-19. Not all COVID patients benefit from being on a ventilator.”
NGHS’s plan was to use its Lumpkin and Barrow facilities for non-COVID-19 patients, but while cases were on the rise a total of 11 people with COVID-19 ended up at NGMC Lumpkin. Only some of those cases originated in Lumpkin County, Whitfield said. As of Friday, only one COVID patient remained hospitalized here.
Because of those in the community who took the shelter-in-place orders seriously, Whitfield said, “Your action gave our physicians, nurses and employees time to prepare and kept our hospitals from being overwhelmed. We’re in a much better position to handle an increase in patients and COVID cases, should there be a second wave.”
BACK IN BUSINESS
As the coronavirus count decreases business is slowly returning to downtown Dahlonega, according to Mayor Sam Norton.
“As to the current status of the downtown businesses, my observation is that 90 percent of businesses are now open on the weekend and 75 percent during the week are open,” he said.
Norton added that since Governor Brian Kemp lifted restrictions some business owners have been more wary than others when it comes to reopening their doors.
“I would not suggest that all the businesses that are open are comfortable opening, but rather are cautiously opening out of necessity,” he said. “Each individual business has the ability and the responsibility to make the decision to open or not based on their own observations, needs and comfort level.”
For those that are opened back up for business or thinking about doing so soon, Norton offered this advice.
“Wearing masks are required in some businesses and recommended in all.”
Whitfield urged the same thing. And said locals should practice continued vigilance by:
• avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people
• wearing a mask around others
• maintaining six feet of distance from others when possible
• covering your cough and sneeze
• washing your hands regularly
• refraining from sharing food or drinks
• disinfecting surfaces
“People who are sick, have chronic medical conditions, are elderly or are pregnant should continue to stay home unless there’s a critical need or emergency,” she added.
However, people in need of medical attention should not delay for fear of COVID-19, said NGHS’s Sean Couch.
“We want to encourage people to not delay their routine or emergency healthcare,” he said. “We're seeing some patients who are not getting care for things like stroke symptom, hernias, heart attacks, and other issues which can be life-threatening. Even delaying routine care can result in small problems going untreated, and they become big problems quickly.”