With Georgia's ICU beds full, rural hospitals say they have nowhere to transfer their critical patients

Miller County Hospital CEO Robin Rau has one word to describe the last couple of weeks at her southwest Georgia facility:  demoralizing.

"We had 4 individuals, dialing, just dialing constantly, hospital after hospital after hospital," Rau says.

Rau says her hospital in rural Colquitt, Georgia, near the Georgia-Alabama border is full, and right now they have 4 patients with the novel coronavirus they are trying to transfer a larger facility with an intensive care unit equipped to treat patients with the virus.

The problem?

As if Friday, January 15, 2021, 5,584 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Georgia.

About 91%, or 2,761 of the state’s ICU beds are occupied, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Rau says her team cannot find open critical care beds anywhere in Georgia or neighboring states.

"We have called hundreds and hundreds of hospitals," Rau says.  "There is not a hospital bed within 7 states of Georgia to get these patients into."

Earlier this week, Rau says, it took 4 days to get one severely ill younger man with the virus transferred to another hospital in Dothan, Alabama. 

He is now in stable condition.

For the 4 others, Rau says she went on a state-run database for hospitals to share information about bed availability.

The system, she says, showed about 20 available ICU beds at one Metro-Atlanta hospital system.

"In reality, they had some 30-something patients in their emergency room, waiting to occupy those beds," Rau says. "So, there is a disconnect between the data and reality."

Tanner Health System's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ben Camp says their ICU beds are full, too.

Like many other hospitals, Camp says, they have dozens of patients holding in their emergency departments, waiting for a critical care bed to open up for them.

"We have pressures of not just patients and patient capacity, but we have pressures of trying to take our staff who need to take care of them, our hospitalists, our nurses, and our critical care staff," he says.

Dr. Camp says Tanner Health System has 5 hospitals, but only two have intensive care units, with about 20 beds combined.

They are averaging between 17 and 21 critical patients on any given day, Camp says.

"So, even us trying to manage our smaller hospitals, and find capacity for them, has been a challenge," he says.   "It is really difficult, if not impossible, to get patients transferred into Atlanta."

In Colquitt, Robin Rau is frustrated and angry.

The ICU bed shortage has become so critical, Rau says, she is warning friends and colleagues who become critically ill or injured to drive directly to a larger facility with an emergency department

If you come to her hospital, Rau warns, they will not be able to transfer you to a larger acute care facility right now.

There is just no room, she says, for anyone coming in with complications of the virus, a heart attack, a stroke or any other medical crisis.

"The public doesn't seem to completely understand," Rau says.  "They're thinking about COVID in terms of getting it. They don't understand there is limited help for anything today."

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