Gov. Brian Kemp announced new funding Monday to hire 1,500 health-care workers as unvaccinated COVID-19 patients tax hospital resources across the state, including in Athens.
The governor said at a Capitol news conference that the state will provide $125 million in funding for hospitals. On top of $500 million the state has already allocated, the funding will allow hospitals to pay 1,500 additional staffers through the first week in December, bringing the total number of state-subsidized hospital workers to 2,800. The additional staffing will allow hospitals to add 450 beds, Kemp said.
“Virtually every hospital’s most pressing issue is lack of qualified staff to treat the patients coming through their door,” he said.
COVID-19 cases in Clarke County rose slightly to an average of 49 new cases per day over the past week, although a positive test rate of 9% indicates cases are likely being undercounted. Local hospitals are increasingly strained, and intensive care units are nearly full and at times overflowing as more COVID-19 patients pour in.
In Region E, which includes Athens, 67 of 70 ICU beds were in use as of Monday. Both local hospitals were severely overcrowded last week and at times went on diversion, which means they were not accepting non-emergency patients, and people seeking treatment in the emergency room for non-life-threatening conditions faced long waits.
The number of COVID-19 patients in Northeast Georgia hospitals nearly doubled in the past week to 165, according to Georgia Department of Public Health data. They made up 27% of all hospital patients, up from 16% the previous week. Fifty-two patients are on ventilators.
COVID killed two Clarke County residents last week after two months of no deaths. The pattern is a familiar one: First cases spike. Hospitalizations start to rise a few weeks later. Then more deaths follow a few weeks after that.
So far, the current surge has been less deadly than previous ones because patients have been younger. Previous strains of COVID primarily preyed on the elderly, but most older people are now vaccinated. The Delta variant is infecting more younger people. Local hospital officials say the COVID patients they are seeing now are primarily in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and almost all of them are unvaccinated.
In Clarke County, vaccination rates remain low, although they’ve picked up slightly lately. Forty percent of residents are fully vaccinated, and 44% have received at least one dose, according to DPH.
The Delta wave is cresting in Missouri after nine weeks, according to microbiologist Amber Schmidtke, who writes a newsletter on the pandemic in Georgia. That means Georgia could see its peak in about four weeks—just in time for AthFest and UGA’s first home football games. That would follow the same pattern as last summer, when Athens was averaging about 40 cases per day until UGA classes started. Then cases exploded to 150 per day in early September.
In her first public appearance beside Kemp in months, DPH Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said the department is doing mass vaccinations at public events, and one is scheduled for Athens, though she didn’t offer any details. She said it’s important to make vaccination easy and convenient for people who are on the fence.
“We need to come to our family and friends about the importance of being vaccinated,” Toomey said.
Kemp said he is continuing to urge people to talk to a health care professional about vaccination, though he reiterated Monday that he thinks a mandate would he counterproductive due to vaccine hesitancy among African Americans and conservative Republicans.
“I think at this point, if anybody out there trusts the government, it’s not many people,” he said, pointing to the CDC reversing course on mask-wearing. “I think mandates, that just pushes people into a corner.”
Kemp said he won’t require state employees to be vaccinated, but he is giving them the day off the Friday before Labor Day in hopes that they’ll use it get the shot.
“Finally, I want to reiterate that Georgia will remain open for business,” he added. “We will not shut down. We will not prevent families from earning a paycheck.”
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