67% of Seminole County’s eligible residents remain unvaccinated!
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.
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 reported this week almost 6,000 new cases, with COVID hospitalizations exceeding 2,900 statewide, up 1,000 in the past week.
Over the past two weeks Seminole County has recorded 53 additional positive COVID-19 cases, and counties throughout Southwest Georgia are reporting massive increases in that same time period. Miller County has reported 45 new cases, Decatur County has had 152, and Grady and Early County each have reported 116 additional new cases. As of Wednesday, August 11, Seminole County has been recorded with a total of 827 positive cases of the virus and eighteen deaths since the pandemic began in March of 2020.
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.
As of Wednesday, August 11, only 33 percent of Seminole County’s eligible residents have been vaccinated. Miller County has the highest vaccination rate in the area at 39%, in Early County the rate is 36%, Decatur County it is 34%, and Grady County’s rate is the lowest at 30%.
As the COVID numbers have increased substantially in the Seminole County service area, Donalsonville Hospital and its incredible staff are rising to the challenge to providing outstanding care the best they can. However, like so many other healthcare facilities throughout the state and nation, even they are facing critical staffing issues.
Many nurses and essential medical employees are working double shifts or covering for their coworkers as employees care for family members sick from COVID or quarantining from exposure, making pandemic work twice as hard.
James Moody, CFO of Donalsonville Hospital said, “Staffing the facility for the healthcare needs that exist in our community remains our largest obstacle. We are spending a large portion of our workday trying to fill work schedules and make sure we are properly staffed to handle all mental health, med/surg, OB/Peds, ER and nursing home health needs of our patients.”
The strain that is put on the healthcare system has a direct effect on the community. As the larger hospitals that surround the Seminole County service area treat a surge of COVID patients they become unable to take transport of Donalsonville’s critically ill patients who need advanced care.
“But you can help slow the spread and reduce the load on our healthcare system,” added Moody. “If you are eligible to be vaccinated, this remains the number one way to protect yourself from serious complications. If you choose to remain unvaccinated, wearing a mask, social distancing and frequent hand washing are your best defense against the contagious Delta Variant of COVID-19.”
Hospital officials throughout the area say the widespread shortages of hospital personnel are making the crisis worse.
“It’s really bad,’’ Robin Rau, CEO of Miller County Hospital in southwest Georgia, said. This surge “seems worse than others. We got overwhelmed so quickly.’’
“Every hospital in Georgia is critically short of staff,’’ Rau said. “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 said the COVID pandemic, which goes back to early 2020 in the United States, has been “like a wound that won’t heal.’’
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,’’ spokesman Ben Roberts said. All hospitals in the region are being hit hard, he said.
“Here we are again,’’ Roberts said. “It’s scary to think of where it could go. Hospitalizations haven’t increased this rapidly since the earliest days of the pandemic.”
Scott Steiner, the Phoebe Putney Health System 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.’’
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,” Dr. Charles Ruis, the district health director, said. “We’re seeing high school students trickling in” to get the shots. “We’re glad some people have changed their minds.”
It’s the same story across all of south Georgia with the Southeast Georgia Health System pleading with community members to get the vaccination shots.
“We’re tired, and we’re at our wits’ end,’’ Jan Jones, director of patient care services for the system that operates hospitals in coastal Glynn and Camden counties, said. “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 that “patients are getting sicker faster. They’re sicker than the first surge. Their conditions are deteriorating fast.’’
Many south Georgia hospitals have passed their pandemic peaks of ICU patients, and are hospitalized patients that are younger, on average, than in other waves of COVID.
Jones added, “I’ve had people in their 20s and 30s on vents [ventilators] fighting for their lives,’’ she said. ‘‘All of them are unvaccinated.’’
Staffing “is a huge challenge,’’ Jones said. The latest surge “is a huge strain of the nursing staff, respiratory therapists and the lab.’’
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.
“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 three weeks.”
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.’’
Portions of this article were reprinted from the Albany Herald and written by Andy Miller