Inside a Georgia ER dealing with pressure, crowding, 'scared' patients

About 84% of the state's emergency department beds are full, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

To understand what that means, you only have to step outside the emergency department at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.

"This is what it's like every day," emergency charge nurse Denise Shields says, gesturing at a line of ambulances waiting to unload patients.

ER staff members wearing masks and scrubs look at computer monitors.

Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Georgia, is coping with a surge in COVID-19 patients.

"We get ambulances from Rabun County, Stephens County, Habersham County, Banks County," Shields says  

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Inside each emergency vehicle is a patient waiting to get emergency care.

A hospital staffer wearing a protective gown pushes a patient on a gurney outside the emergency department.

Staff members unload a patient from an ambulance outside the emergency department of Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville

"They're lined up waiting to come in," she says. "So, what a lot of them will do, since there are no beds in the ER right now, they will have a nurse come out and actually triage the patient in the ambulance."

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As patients are triaged inside the ambulances, only those who are assessed as very urgent or unstable are be brought inside the ED quickly.

Two ambulances parked outside the ambulance bay at Northeast Georgia Medical Center

Ambulances wait outside Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Georgia.

"If not, then they stay here on the ambulance until there is a room available," Shields says.

In 21 years on the job, the charge nurse at Northeast Georgia Medical Center sister hospital in Braselton says she has never experienced a crush of patients the hospital system is seeing right now.

"It's a lot of people," Shields says. "You wonder, 'How many more can we see?' It's exhausting some days."

A medical worker puts on protective equipment at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Georgia. (Eli Jordan, FOX 5 Atlanta)

About 47%, of those hospitalized in Region B, which includes the northeast portion of the state, have COVID-19.

Of 150 ICU beds available in the region,135 are occupied.

Shields suspects many of the patients she is treating are unvaccinated, but that is just a guess, she says.

A patient is unloaded from an ambulance

A patient is unloaded from an ambulance outside Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.

She does not ask them about their vaccination status, she says, because right now she has little time to talk.

Shields says has heard people on social media dismissing what is happening in hospitals as hype, or a hoax.

"They are full," she says  "We are full.  Those hospital rooms are full with patients, and it's very hard to hear that, as a nurse who works in the ER and is seeing this every day, to think that people would think we'd lie about beds being full."

Their COVID-19 patients, she says, realize what they're up against.

A crowded hospital hallway, where staff members wear protective equipment like masks and gowns

Northeast Georgia Medical Center has transformed regular inpatient floors into intensive care units, to keep up with the surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

"And, it's not as easy as they thought it would be," Shields says. "They get scared. I've seen a lot of people scared."

Northeast Georgia Medical Center was the first Atlanta-area hospital system to open its doors to the media Monday, allowing reporters and photographers to visit its crowded emergency department and a COVID-19 unit.

To make space for the rising patient numbers, the hospital has transformed regular inpatient floors into intensive care units.

A staff member stands outside the doors of a COVID-19 patients room. There is a sign on the door that reads "COVID +"

A staff member stands outside COVID-19 patient rooms at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.

Patients with the virus have orange signs outside their door, indicating they have the virus.

Shields says the staff is stretched thin right now.

"It's very hard," she says. "We're tired. We're exhausted. But, I have the best team." 

She says her nurses deserve a lot of credit for showing up day after day for their shifts, despite the intense pressure.

Still, Shields wonders, how long they can keep this up this pace.

Asked what Georgians can do to help struggling hospitals, she answers quickly.

"Get vaccinated," she says. "Wear a mask.  Watch your distance.  Wash your hands."

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Looking around at the line of ambulances, Shields adds one more piece of advice.

"Please stay safe," she says.

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