Aug. 28—VALDOSTA — South Georgia Medical Center has experienced a few firsts since the COVID-19 delta variant surge started in early July. — The first time reaching 100 COVID-19 patients. — The first time surging past 100 patients. — The first time taking more than 1,600 COVID-19 tests in a day.
Needless to say, as one hospital official noted, things have gotten "pretty bad."
The hospital experienced some "false inflation" on the case count last weekend (i.e. the record high case count of 113 from Aug. 23), but it's mostly an average of 100 patients hospitalized.
SGMC reported its lowest COVID-19 patient count of only three hospitalized on June 23, according to data on the SGMC virus online dashboard.
Still, Dr. Brian Dawson, SGMC chief medical officer, said it's strange to go from nine patients hospitalized in the first week of July to SGMC reporting 102 patients hospitalized by late August.
The steep climb began the week of July 22 when the hospital reported 13 virus patients then stepped to 32 by July 27; 49 by Aug. 1; 85 by Aug. 6; 88 by Aug. 14; then 98 by Aug. 15; 109 by Aug. 16; 98 by Aug. 21; 113 by Aug. 23; and in the 100 range since.
Yet, the increase in numbers signifies that SGMC has a "capability to absorb," Dawson said.
"We had 90 patients on Jan. 11 (and) that was the most we had (at the time)," he added. "We've had as many as 110 on the board, and we came in and we know we've been able to absorb that within the system."
The nursing staff make this capability possible, he said. Nurses are the backbone of the hospital and they've maintained that position with a "high level of care" through the surge, Dawson said.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, nurses are at COVID-19 patients' bedsides; however, that capability has not gone without its fair share of stresses and changes.
Nurses working administrative roles such as case management and information technology have been pulled out and redeployed in clinical areas to take care of patients.
"It's been a good stress test for the nursing staff, but they've done admirably throughout this," Dawson said. "Not just nursing staff, but I'd say all the allied health professionals and all the support staff throughout the hospital."
They're tired but resilient, he said.
Still, if the pandemic's alpha variant was a trial run, delta is a true test of the hospital's preparedness, he added. Where one focus comes, another is diverted.
"What we're seeing is out of those 102 that a majority of them — a vast majority — are unvaccinated," Dawson said.
SGMC has curtailed some non-essential surgeries, putting a focus on emergent and urgent surgeries. Essential surgeries, such as ones that are cancer related, still occur.
"It's not urgent but you can't leave cancer unanswered for weeks on end," Dawson said. "We've reallocated our surgery schedule so that we can pull back that schedule and make it smaller."
There's a silver lining in still being able to function in that capacity while tending to patients infected from the delta variant. Dawson, again, emphasized the word — resilience.
"We have continued to accept some patient transfers from outside facilities when they have been overwhelmed," he said. "That has been a challenge but we do have a commitment that we'll care for the patients of this region."
Making sure or attempting to drive vaccinations is part of the process.
SGMC is having two vaccination drive-through events Saturday, Aug. 28, at its main campus and at the Smith Northview campus. Dawson said by Aug. 24 there were at least 504 people already signed up for it.
The expectation is for 1,000-plus people to get vaccinated.
SGMC strongly encourages people to get the vaccine but some people are still wary about getting it.
Dawson said he's seen and heard people become more comfortable getting the vaccine when they hear close friends or family members receive it; or when they see that 93% of people hospitalized and the 98% on ventilators aren't vaccinated.
"It's a clear picture to people that they have an incentive to get vaccinated to protect themselves and spend time with their family and friends," he said.
There's still a task of combating misunderstanding/misinformation dealing with the vaccine. Between the variants of COVID-19, the vaccine (SGMC has the Pfizer vaccine) is 95% effective, he said.
Yes, there's a 5% chance of getting sick, Dawson said, but with a vaccination, it's less likely the person will end up in the hospital and/or on a ventilator.
"The vaccine is medicine, it's not magic," Dawson said. "We can't guarantee that every single person won't get sick, but we know statistically it gives you a much greater likelihood of staying healthy than if you don't get the vaccine."
As of Aug. 26, SGMC reported 38,583 vaccinations administered across its system with 29% of Lowndes County fully vaccinated as reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health.
COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the U.S., Dawson said, adding we have a treatment that's 95% effective in not only treating it but preventing it.
He said SGMC strongly encourages getting vaccinated. Even if already vaccinated, still wear a mask, wash hands, keep a distance, and if feeling symptoms, get tested.