Some rural hospitals in Southeast Georgia overwhelmed with COVID-19 surge

Local News

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Some rural hospitals in Southeast Georgia say their emergency rooms are overwhelmed with the surge in COVID-19 cases. 

More than 60% of patients at Memorial Health’s Meadows Hospital in Toombs County are COVID positive, the highest volume of COVID patients yet. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Karen McCole said since the last week of July, the emergency room is steadily getting busier.

The hospital has closed its Immediate Care office to have enough staff in the emergency room. While Dr. McCole said they are not turning patients away, they have had to transfer patients due to a lack of critical care resources.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had to transfer folks 90 miles away, sometimes even out of state,” Dr. McCole said. “That’s very stressful for a family and we understand that. But it’s also very stressful to the organization when we don’t have the resources to treat them adequately.”

As of Friday, 59 patients are in the hospital, which has 57 beds in total. 

Due to stretched resources, Bulloch County EMS is asking the public to only use 911 in the case of severe emergencies. Stephen Pennington, CEO of East Georgia Regional Medical Center, said the emergency room is the busiest it has ever been.

“Our employees are working hard each and every day to take care of patients to make sure not only the COVID patients are provided care for, but of course patients still have chest pain, they still have strokes and need care,” Pennington said. “We have to have a dual-track to provide care for both of them.”

The regional hospital serves eight counties, some areas an hour or more away.

While Pennington said the hospital is not at full capacity, it is struggling to accommodate transfer patients from smaller hospitals. 

“It is stressing our system, especially on the critical care beds,” he said. “We are prepared and trained for situations like this, so we do well. But this time, it’s probably the most challenging time I’ve seen in my career.”

The vaccination rate in both Bulloch and Toombs County is less than 30%, according to the state health department. At EGRMC, 96% of COVID patients are not vaccinated, according to Pennington.

“I was hopeful that more people would get vaccinated and we would not be in this situation,” he said. “Unfortunately, in our community our vaccination rates are low. That’s not helping our cause.”

Dr. McCole explained that living in a rural community may give people a false sense of security.

“You may not live in a densely packed neighborhood so you have that sense of ‘I’m not necessarily surrounded by people that could potentially infect me or my family,’” she said. “If we’re not on top of mind thinking about ‘can I potentially be exposed to this virus,’ there’s really no urgency to protect oneself.”

Both hospital leaders said they are working to eliminate vaccine misinformation in their communities.

“We’re all in the same boat and we really need to help our fellow citizens realize that this is real and that we need to protect ourselves,” Dr. McCole said.

Dr. McCole said the hospital is also encouraging unvaccinated COVID patients to get the shot two to four weeks after all symptoms are gone to avoid re-infection.

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