Georgia health care workers sound alarm amid COVID surge

Georgia health care workers on Friday expressed increasing alarm and frustration with a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the delta variant of the coronavirus as more schools sent students home amid rising infection rates.

Phoebe Putney Health System was caring for 133 coronavirus patients at its three hospitals in the Albany area and had exceeded its highest patient count from the state’s last major COVID-19 surge, which was over the winter.

"I can’t comprehend why — after fighting this war for 18 months, with people still dying and with critically ill patients filling our COVID units — we’re still having to work to convince people of the seriousness of what our tireless teams are dealing with every day," Phoebe Putney Health System President and CEO Scott Steiner said in a statement. "If only the deniers and the doubters could spend a shift working alongside one of our ICU nurses or respiratory therapists. Maybe then, they would believe."

Phoebe released a video interview with a critical care doctor, Enrique Lopez, who described harrowing scenes of patients struggling to breathe and pleaded with people to get vaccinated. Only 41% of Georgia’s population is fully vaccinated, well below the national average.

"The people that are begging for air would also have loved to have the vaccine. Trust me. I’ve spoken to them," Lopez says.

Georgia’s case count continued to rise, with the seven-day rolling average climbing above 6,000 on Friday, the worst since Feb. 1. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals was also rising rapidly, exceeding 4,000 on Friday even as many hospital executives have warned they don’t have enough beds and staff.

More than 87% of the state’s ICU beds were in use. More than 40 hospitals statewide were turning away all patients, emergency patients or intensive care patients.

Schools, meanwhile, continued to struggle with COVID-19 cases. School districts in Burke, Crisp, Long and Ware counties announced Friday that they would send students home, bringing the number of districts that have done so to nine. Talbot County is supposed to return to in-person instruction on Monday.

Most districts are teaching remotely, but Ware County in southeast Georgia said it would have no in-person or remote instruction until Sept. 7. The district on Friday said that after two weeks of school, 76 of 6,000 students had tested positive and another 679 were in quarantine because of exposure. Of 950 employees, 67 had tested positive and 150 were in quarantine.

The superintendent of the 90,00-student Fulton County district, Mike Looney, said at a school board meeting on Thursday that the virus could force an end to in-person instruction, according to district officials.

At least 40 districts covering almost 45% of the state’s student population are requiring masks.

The metro Atlanta’s DeKalb County announced Friday that NBA legends Dikembe Mutombo and Dominique Wilkins will be at a vaccine drive Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Gallery at South DeKalb mall. Anyone who gets vaccinated will receive a $100 prepaid debit card, county officials said.

In Hall County north of Atlanta, county employees who get fully vaccinated before the end of September will get a $500 bonus. The Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution on Thursday that allowed for the bonuses.

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