Representatives from metro Atlanta’s hospitals addressed the recent explosion of COVID-19 Delta variant cases, which includes an increasing number of young patients, during an Aug. 19 joint press conference.
The press conference, held outside of Mercedes Benz Stadium, was hosted jointly by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory, Grady, Piedmont, Wellstar and Northeast Georgia Health System, the latter of which serves Braselton and Barrow County.
“We’re seeing far more young people affected by this virus requiring hospitalization, suffering devastating injuries, such as lifelong injury to their lungs as well as strokes and heart attacks,” said Dr. Danny Branstetter, medical director of infection prevention at Wellstar Health System.
Similarly, Dr. Jim Fortenberry, chief medical officer of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said Children’s hospitals “are seeing a significantly greater impact on our children and our teens.”
Fortenberry noted that many children aren’t yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to help guard against the highly-infectious Delta variant.
“Many of our kids can’t get the vaccine because of their ages,” Fortenberry said. “So, we all play a role in preventing the spread to them. The best way to protect all of our kids is to get vaccinated.”
Fortenberry recommended children older than 12 and “everyone of us as adults” take the vaccine.
“It is the way out of the pandemic right now,” Fortenberry said.
Only a small fraction of children who have tested positive have required hospitalization so far, Fortenberry said. But he pointed to a combination of a more-easily transmitted COVID-19 virus with an unusual summer surge of respiratory viruses, including Respiratory Syncytial Virus, driving high volumes of patients into Children’s facilities.
As of Aug. 19, 31 patients were hospitalized across Children’s three hospital locations with COVID-19, while large numbers of young patients had respiratory viruses. The majority of children with COVID-19 have underlying medical conditions, “but some of our kids are previously healthy that are coming in to need hospitalization,” Fortenberry said.
Meanwhile, Branstetter said Wellstar’s facilities are again filling up with COVID patients, young and old and those with co-morbidities who have not been vaccinated, according to Bransetter.
“Ninety-two percent of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated,” said Bransetter, adding that 60 percent of Wellstar ICU patients are unvaccinated COVID 19 patients.
Dr. Andy Jaffal, chief medical officer for Piedmont Atlanta, said “increasingly, we are now seeing younger patients in our hospitals.”
Jaffal said he watched a previously healthy, 28-year-old unvaccinated patient pass away from COVID complications.
“And while we value every life, that one was tough,” Jaffal said, “because it could have been prevented.”
Overrun hospitals fear highest COVID spike yet
Jaffal expects this latest COVID surge to “significantly outpace the previous highest peak.”
That bleak forecast comes as the Delta variant surge has already taken its toll on metro Atlanta hospitals.
Dr. Robert Jansen, chief medical officer for Grady Health System, said Grady facilities — which also treat a large number of trauma patients — are now having to divert patients due to “this tsunami” of COVID patients filling up emergency rooms.
“For the first time that I can remember, we are having to go on diversion — not because of trauma cases — but because our emergency department is full of patients who were infected with COVID,” Jansen said.
Jansen stressed that diversion doesn’t mean Grady won’t treat all patients seeking care.
“But it’s our way of communicating to the ambulances that we’re full, and if you can find another place to go that can deliver care quicker, that would be a better option,” Jansen explained.
In addition to ICU space being spread thin, many front-line healthcare workers have left the profession, weary of a pandemic that has lasted for well over a year and is heading toward a projected spike worse than any since the initial COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are seeing many nurses and clinicians, the strongest professionals I have ever known, leave the profession or pause their careers because of the stress (that) the pandemic has caused both personally and professionally,” said Sharon Pappus, chief nurse executive for Emory Healthcare.
Each medical professional who spoke Thursday pled with the unvaccinated to take the vaccine.
“We need everyone to do their part by getting vaccinated,” Pappus said. “Vaccinations drastically reduce hospitalizations and severe illness.”
Jaffal said that 96 percent of Piedmont’s COVID patients are unvaccinated, while 97 percent of its ICU patients are unvaccinated.
“Considering the rapid spread of COVID-19 infections across Georgia, vaccines work,” he said. “Vaccines are the very best way you can protect yourself, you loved ones and your family.”
Jansen reiterated that hospitalized COVID patients are primarily “people who have chosen, for whatever reason, to not get a vaccine that we all know is safe and effective.”
“It’s available, get vaccinated,” he said. “Take care of yourself.”
“Go out and get vaccinated,” echoed Dr. John Delzell, vice president of education for Northeast Georgia Health System. “If you haven’t already been vaccinated this is the time to do it.”
“The risk is very minimal; the upside benefit is enormous,” he added.
Delzell also encouraged the public to continue to wear masks, wash hands and avoid large gatherings as other preventative measures.
Active trials for a vaccine for children under age 12 are ongoing, according to Fortenberry of Children’s Hospitals.
But he stressed vaccination among those old enough to receive it.
“While we’re waiting, we know there’s lots and lots of people that can benefit from the vaccine right now,” he said.