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Athens-Clarke County already faced a health care provider shortage before the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China, according to federal data.

Athens-Clarke County’s two main hospitals serve more than 600,000 people in a 17-county region. Seven of these counties don’t have a hospital.

But ACC already faced a health care provider shortage before the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China, according to federal data.

A provider shortage means there are more people who need care than the number of people who can provide it, said Grace Bagwell Adams, a University of Georgia associate professor of health policy and management. In a health crisis, there may not be enough providers in ACC to care for critically sick people.

Adams and a team of researchers at the UGA College of Public Health published a study on April 3 that estimates COVID-19 cases may peak in the 17-county region around April 28. It’s unclear when this crisis will end, but the economic fallout will last for a long time, Adams said.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a complete return to quote-unquote normalcy until there’s a vaccine,” Adams said.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved any products to treat or prevent COVID-19 as of April 24.

A vaccine could take months to develop because of rigorous safety and efficacy testing, said Ted Ross, director of the UGA Center for Vaccines and Immunology, in a March 24 UGA news release. Ross is developing a COVID-19 vaccine with a team of researchers at UGA.

Even when the coronavirus pandemic ends there will be a recovery period, which will involve supporting families and creating access for “basic things” such as food security, housing stability and health care access, Adams said.

When people lose their jobs, they often lose the health insurance that comes with it, Adams said. And as people lose their health insurance, they often lose health care access.

That’s the most immediate consequence of an economic decline, especially in Georgia, Adams said. People without health insurance — nearly a fifth of ACC’s population in 2018 — can often only find health care access in hospital emergency departments.

That means people living without insurance in Hancock County, which has one doctor, may have to travel 70 miles to Athens-Clarke to see a doctor.

But just because someone shows up to the emergency room does not mean they will receive a COVID-19 test, Adams said.

Overall tests administered and turnaround time has improved, but it’s not enough, Adams said, adding that even the best scientists don’t have an exact number of what constitutes “enough” tests.

The Georgia Department of Public Health expanded its testing criteria on April 15 to include all symptomatic people. DPH testing eligibility was previously limited to health care workers, law enforcement, first responders and long-term care facility workers and residents. Georgia lags behind most other states in testing per capita.

“If we are still having to ration tests for health care workers and people who are extremely symptomatic, then we don’t, we still don’t have enough tests,” Adams said.

In-house testing capabilities, which Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center and St. Mary’s Hospital have, exponentially speeds up the turnaround time for results. These tests allow providers to see results in hours as opposed to waiting up to 10 days, PARMC CEO Michael Burnett said in an April 6 conference call.

Turnaround time aside, Adams said proper testing should include people showing mild symptoms and those who have come in contact with them due to asymptomatic transmission.

“Limited testing capabilities can delay reporting of the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases,” Adams said.

There is a lag between the time someone is tested, when the patient sees the result and when the DPH receives the result. For some patients, this may take up to seven business days, Adams said.

“You can’t really develop solutions or even prepare adequately if you don’t know what the problem is that you’re facing,” Adams said. “We’ve got over 9 million people in Georgia and only 60,000 tests.”

Anila Yoganathan and Jake Drukman contributed to this article.

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