The 12-county region that Athens hospitals serve had only one critical care bed available on Tuesday, according to the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, and Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center and St. Mary’s Hospital are looking to alleviate pressure on their critical care capabilities.
Clarke County has seen 234 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the past seven days, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. With University of Georgia classes starting on Aug. 20, the temporary population of Athens will increase with students, faculty and staff returning to campus.
As of Aug. 4, the 12-county region, including Clarke County, had one of its 70 critical care beds available, according to the daily situation report from GEMA. Additionally, Athens’ service area is larger than its health district — the two hospitals actually serve 17 counties, according to researchers from the University of Georgia College of Public Health.
In addition to a shortage of beds, hospitals also need specialized equipment and specially-trained nurses and physicians, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. While diverting patients isn’t a new phenomenon in hospitals, it’s “unique” to have entire regions of the state at full ICU capacity, according to the AJC.
Both Piedmont Athens and St. Mary’s stated that the vast majority of their patients are not being treated for COVID-19. Piedmont Atlanta opened a COVID Expansion Unit to alleviate pressure on Intensive Care Unit beds in surrounding areas, with a total of 100 beds. Sydney Walker, Piedmont Athens’ spokesperson, said the COVID unit will alleviate pressure on the hospital to treat patients outside its region.
Walker said the hospital has been accepting patient transfers from within and outside its GEMA region.
“The vast majority of patients in Piedmont Athens Regional are not being treated for COVID-19. We continue to treat patients for both routine and emergent visits, major surgeries, and labor and delivery. These patients, combined with the volume of COVID patients, are populating our hospital,” Walker said.
Walker said the hospital has expanded its ICU capacity and will continue to take transfers as capacity permits.
St. Mary’s told the AJC that it was declining requests to take ICU patients and diverting ambulances with critical care patients. In an email to The Red & Black, St. Mary’s said patient volumes are growing, especially for critical care services.
“St. Mary’s Health Care System, like all hospitals in our region, continues to experience growing patient volumes, especially for critical care services. The vast majority of patients admitted to our hospitals are not in need of treatment for COVID-19,” Mark Ralston, St. Mary’s spokesperson, said. “However, the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in our region is contributing to the higher volumes we are seeing.”
St. Mary’s is maintaining contact with state officials to notify them of the hospital’s situation and if it needs assistance, Ralston said.
Both St. Mary’s and Piedmont Athens said in their statements that they are working together to address capacity issues. Ralston said St. Mary’s understands the risk of delaying care, and along with Piedmont Athens, urges the community to wear masks and practice social distancing.