BRUNSWICK, Ga. – Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday announced he was deploying 105 members of the National Guard to more than a dozen hospitals across the state, including eight members who arrived Wednesday at Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick.
As of Wednesday, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health dashboard, there were 13,491 patients in Georgia hospitals, or 87.3% of capacity, and 2,758 those were in intensive care beds, or 90% of capacity. Region J, which includes Georgia’s coastal counties, had 892 patients out of 969 total beds, which is 92.05% of capacity.
At Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, there were 135 COVID-19 patients, 48 of whom were in critical care units, as of Wednesday. Fourteen of those receiving treatment were vaccinated.
“Right now, we are having an unprecedented COVID surge in our community, and our staff is taxed in terms of caring for the record number of patients that we’ve had,” said Ryan Kerr, corporate council with Southeast Georgia Health System. “But also we’ve had a number of staff, just like any employer, that are out due to their own COVID infections.”
One doctor describes the conditions they’re dealing with like a war zone. The National Guard will be helping the hospital with the surge in COVID for the next few months. Yet Southeast Georgia Health System Chief Medical Officer Alan Brown said they wish they could have more National Guard members because they’re so short-staffed.
“Our ER times, or the wait times, are tremendous, probably the highest I’ve ever seen, and it’s inhibiting our ability to help the patients who don’t have COVID,” said Brown.
News4Jax was told the hospital’s emergency room handles 15 to 20 COVID-19 patients a day, decreasing the ability to help other patients. The hospital has had to cancel surgeries, turn surgery rooms into intensive care units and reallocate staff.
The governor’s announcement that he was deploying members of the National Guard came on the same day that Glynn County Schools announced the current number of positive COVID-19 cases in its schools and the community had escalated its operational level from “yellow” to “red.”
According to the school district, distance learning will take place during regular school hours through Google Classroom from Aug. 30 through Sep. 10. The district said attendance will be optional for students from Wednesday through Friday and absences will be excused on those days.
“Updates on a return to in-person learning will be based on data collected by schools and provided no later than September 10, 2021,” Glynn County Schools said.
Brown said there was a chance to slow the spread before COVID-19 had a ripple effect across Glynn County.
“Maybe a temporary use of masking would have been of benefit, but, unfortunately, two weeks after we decided not to do that, we’re back to virtual schools,” Brown said.
Isabel Cortez is a parent with children in Glynn County. She said she wanted students to be in virtual school from the start of the year because she was scared to send them in person.
“A lot of the students, they caught COVID. Mine are home now, and, unfortunately, a lot of my kids’ friends caught COVID as well,” Cortez said.
Another parent, who wished to remain unnamed, told News4Jax she’ll keep her children in virtual school for as long as it takes.
“I know my school, in particular, has so many kids out, and my two were actually two of the ones from school who got it, so I fully support virtual school for a little while,” she said.
Statewide, 25 districts and charter schools are sending all their students home and going all-virtual temporarily. The Glynn County district, with more than 12,000 students, became the largest to take that step. Two districts and a charter school have already returned from timeouts from in-school learning, while at least six districts are closing individual schools. At least seven districts have switched to A/B schedules where students attend class every other day. Overall, more than 100,000 students statewide have been affected by closures or schedule changes.
More than 1% of school-age children in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks. Children between the ages of 5 and 17 are now more likely than adults as a whole to test positive for COVID-19. The state Department of Public Health reported more than 30 infection clusters in schools statewide, the highest since the epidemic began.
The Southeast Georgia Health System has four pediatric beds, and Brown said they’ve had their share of pediatric hospitalizations.
“While children still seem to have better outcomes than everyone else, they are not all having outcomes like they did with the first variant, and that’s very tragic and very unfortunate,” Brown said.
Brown said that for the sake of the hospital, school and community, it’s best for everyone to get vaccinated.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.