Athens-Clarke County’s hospitals, which serve an area with a total population of over 627,000, are facing a critical regional labor shortage due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to researchers from the University of Georgia College of Public Health.
The researchers — Grace Bagwell Adams, Justin Ingels and Megan Bramlett — presented the information to the ACC Mayor and Commission during a March 19 meeting. They said Athens’ two main hospitals, Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center and St. Mary’s Hospital, serve people from Athens-Clarke and 16 nearby counties.
Later that meeting, the commission approved an order in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19 requiring residents stay home unless they’re making essential trips like grocery shopping or caring for the elderly.
Seven of the nearby counties served by the two Athens hospitals do not have a hospital. The hospitals in the other nearby counties are smaller than those in ACC, where the health services are the most robust of the 17-county region, Adams said in an email.
Yet ACC itself is a health professional shortage area, meaning it lacks an adequate number of primary care providers for low-income people, according to federal government data.
ACC has 1,910 registered nurses, per Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates for May 2018, or 4.26 per 1,000 people in the primary service area, which includes ACC and contiguous counties, according to the presentation.
Adams said 59.8% of ACC households have someone with at least one chronic condition, 9% have an adult aged 65 or over, and 7.6% have someone 65 or older and someone with at least one chronic condition.
Those without a primary care provider and those who rely on the emergency room for regular care are especially at risk. Citing a data sample from the Athens Wellbeing Project — of which Adams is principal investigator — Adams said 39% of adults in the sample had an ER visit in 2019, and 28% of those with an ER visit depend on the ER as their primary care provider.
Of the sample, 33% had a child visit the ER, and 14% of those depend on the ER as the child’s primary care provider.
In ACC, 19% of households do not have health insurance as of 2018, which is up from 13% in 2016, according to the presentation. This significantly decreases access to care and health outcomes, Adams said.
The local government has scrambled to find resources for ACC health care providers.
District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards said the local health department asked the Mayor and Commission to try and obtain more nasopharyngeal swabs to test patients for COVID-19. Edwards said he and other commissioners have been calling doctors and doing research on the internet to try and find a source of swabs.
“It’s shocking how unprepared the federal government was,” Edwards said. “We were counting on the feds and the CDC to provide these tests. Now we’ve got county commissioners who have no epidemiological experience or public health experience beating the bushes to try to find sophisticated medical equipment to address this crisis.”
District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said he is working to identify a sewing pattern to make personal protective masks at home for health care workers to use. He said once he finds a pattern that is acceptable to health services, he will organize volunteers to sew the masks.
A report from the Imperial College London suggests that social distancing would have the largest impact on preventing the spread of the virus if everybody in a population practices social distancing.
“What you can do for … members of your friend network and members of your family is continue to remain distant to the greatest degree possible,” Mayor Kelly Girtz said in a video message Monday. “Now is not the time for the block party. Now is not the time for the backyard barbecue.”
The report said these policies would need to be maintained until large stocks of vaccines are available to immunize the population, which may take 18 months or more, to prevent an uptick in transmission.
The report noted the uncertainty surrounding the virus and the policies put into place attempting to stop its spread.