Aug. 19—ATLANTA — "Overrun" by a "tsunami" of COVID-19 cases and facing "horrific" conditions in their emergency rooms, representatives of some of Georgia's largest health systems gathered Thursday to plead, once again, for residents to get vaccinated.
"One year ago, we came to you to discuss what we were seeing ... a virus affecting those who were older, who had co-morbidities, chronic illnesses, and (was) having devastating effects — hospitalization and death," said Dr. Danny Branstetter, Wellstar's director of infection prevention, from a podium overlooking Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"Today, today that no longer holds true. The virus is no longer drawing that distinction," Branstetter added.
The grim tenor of the news conference, held in conjunction with Grady Hospital, Piedmont Healthcare, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Northeast Georgia Health System and Emory Healthcare, spoke volumes of the crisis wrought by the spread of the delta variant. And as Dr. Andy Jaffal, Piedmont's chief medical officer, said, "it will get worse before it starts getting better."
Jaffal said the current wave, which began rising dramatically around a month ago, will "significantly outpace" the spike in infections last winter. Real improvement in the case numbers isn't expected to be seen until late September.
Then came the real tough medicine, as doctors described the conditions inside their hospitals where coronavirus patients continue to pour in — the vast majority of them unvaccinated.
At Wellstar hospitals, for example, 60% of all ICU patients are unvaccinated COVID-19 cases. Jaffal said he recently watched an otherwise-healthy 28-year-old who was, again, unvaccinated, die of coronavirus complications.
"While we value every life, that's — that one was tough," Jaffal said. "Because it could have been prevented."
The human toll of the virus is spreading even to those who are protected from infection. Nurses, the "extended family members of those who seek care," as Emory's Sharon Pappas called them, are dropping out of the profession from strain and exhaustion.
"(Their) commitment has been demonstrated daily throughout the pandemic. However, it's being tested now in ways I have never seen before," Pappas said.
The news conference came the day after dozens, many of them nurses, protested in Marietta against Wellstar's vaccine mandate for its employees. While some exceptions will be granted for Emory's workers, Pappas acknowledged "there probably will be some subset of nurses who choose not to stay."
There is only one way out of the present crisis, the medical professionals agreed: vaccination rates need to start rising significantly, starting yesterday. But despite the urging of public health and elected officials, along with social media and ad campaigns, the number of Georgians who have received at least one dose has risen less than 5% in the last month, per the Department of Public Health.
Branstetter said he has cause to believe the rate will climb more rapidly in the future. FDA approval of the vaccine for children 12 and under, when it comes, should significantly slow the virus's spread. The lethality of the delta variant may yet be a double-edged sword, persuading hesitant Georgians to take the shot as the situation grows more dire.
"They see the devastation that this is having on the young people now, that we did not face before," Branstetter said.