As the number of coronavirus cases in Barrow County closed in on 1,000 Tuesday, officials with Northeast Georgia Health System and Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow continued to stress the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing and avoiding large gatherings.

As of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily 3 p.m. update Tuesday, there had been 979 cases and 32 deaths from COVID-19 among county residents since the outbreak began, with nearly a third of the cases and five deaths coming in the last two weeks. From July 21-28, 181 more cases and two deaths were confirmed by the department, including 37 confirmed cases Tuesday.

The grim spike across Georgia continued Tuesday as well, as another 4,293 confirmed cases pushed the state past 175,000 total and 54 more reported deaths raised the death toll to 3,563. An average of 3,762 cases were confirmed in Georgia per day July 21-28, as the cumulative total of cases in the state has more than doubled in the past month with the percentage of positive tests also increasing.

The effects of the spike continued to be felt across Northeast Georgia Health System — which is seeing its highest hospitalization levels since April — as officials reported that 173 patients positive for COVID-19 were being treated across its four hospitals and other facilities Tuesday morning (the highest total since the system’s daily public reporting began in early April) and another 75 patients were awaiting test results. Those numbers included three positive patients at NGMC Barrow with seven more awaiting results. Dr. John Delzell, the vice president of medical education for NGMC in Gainesville, said roughly a third of the system’s recent tests of patients have returned positive.

In comparison to the current numbers, the system was treating 55 positive patients at the end of June — with 13 others “under investigation” for COVID-19 — while there were no positive patients at NGMC Barrow, which at the time was in the middle of a three-week stretch without any positive cases.

Overall, 1,414 patients with COVID-19 had been discharged by the health system while 154 had died as of Tuesday.

Concerns throughout the state have continued over crowded hospitals, and recent daily “situation reports” by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency have indicated there are no critical-care beds available in Region E, which Barrow County is part of (Tuesday’s report listed one available). Still, Delzell said NGHS is managing its capacity across its facilities, adding that NGMC Barrow had 71 percent of its beds full as of Tuesday.

All of the NGHS critical-care beds are at the Gainesville and Braselton campuses, which are actually in GEMA’s Region B. Delzell said while Barrow County residents who are in need of critical-care beds go to hospitals all around, the majority are likely being sent to NGMC Braselton in south Hall County, where there were 42 patients positive for COVID-19 and nine more awaiting results as of Tuesday morning. Some of the COVID patients at NGMC Barrow are treated in emergency-room beds, he said.

GEMA listed 16 critical-care beds available in Region B as of Tuesday, and NGHS has benefitted from a state-installed, 20-bed mobile unit at NGMC Gainesville as well as mobile tent areas for patient overflow at both Gainesville and Braselton, officials pointed out.

And while the severity of symptoms in patients is wide-ranging, Delzell said the system’s primary concern right now remains the volume of cases in the community.

“As more patients test positive, that leads to more people requiring hospitalization, which leads to more requiring critical care and ventilators,” Delzell said. “That’s really our biggest challenge in taking care of them because there is a limit to what we have available.”

The rising numbers, the statistics that as much as 25 percent people with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and the challenges the state faces in building a robust contact-tracing program make it all that more critical for people to follow public health guidance to try to stem the spread of the virus, officials said.

“The more people who are out and about and in close proximity to each other, the more the numbers are going to increase,” said Dr. Rishi Sareen, medical director of the emergency department at NGMC Barrow. “One of our big focuses has been urging people to wear masks, be sanitary, wash their hands and keep social distancing. Just by wearing a mask, you can prevent a lot of the person-to-person transmission.”

Large gatherings continue to be a major area of concern for medical professionals, and at least two large gatherings were planned in the county this week. After the Barrow County School System canceled tentatively-planned traditional graduation ceremonies for Winder-Barrow and Apalachee high schools amid current conditions, parent groups organized alternate ceremonies, which were scheduled to be held Wednesday and Thursday at Innovation Amphitheater and were expected to draw as many as 500 people each night. Mask-wearing, social distancing and temperature checks were among the mandated measures set to be implemented by the event-management company for the amphitheater in compliance with Gov. Brian Kemp’s most recent executive order outlining coronavirus restrictions.

The ceremonies come on the heels of a graduation ceremony for the Bethlehem Christian Academy Class of 2020 at Bethlehem Church earlier this month, where most people were seated closely together and a majority did not wear masks.

Even with preventative measures in place, everyone should be cognizant of the risk level of attending large events right now, Delzell said.

“The more people socially distance and the more mask-wearing there is, the less the risk is. But it doesn’t eliminate it entirely,” he said, adding that the beginning and end of events, meetings and other functions are when people may be most vulnerable to being exposed.

“It’s the time before and after, when people are sort of talking to each other and moving closer together,” he said. “It’s that whole social part up that ends up being the biggest risk.”

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