Hospitals in Atlanta

How COVID-19 has impacted Atlanta hospitals

By Victoria Chan

Confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths by age group // Data from Georgia Department of Public Health (as of March 8th, 2022)

Hospitals are often considered cornerstones for any city, and Atlanta is no exception. While Atlanta is home to some of the best ranked hospitals nationally, Atlanta hospitals have been put under an enormous amount of strain in the past two months dealing with a huge influx of COVID-19 patients.

Some of the best hospitals in the Atlanta area, such as Emory Healthcare and Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, have urged Atlanta residents to get vaccinated amidst the omicron wave as hospitals were overflowing with the number of hospitalizations surpassing previous numbers. The number of hospitalizations had become so overwhelming that as of February 21, 2022, Georgia is witnessing a 7-day average of 96 deaths, according to USA Facts, and many of Georgia’s healthcare workers are experiencing this pressure.

Jessica Chan, a third-year pre-med student with a minor in economics has witnessed just about anything you can imagine that can happen at the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta (CHOA) at Egleston and Hughes Spalding. As a scribe hired in June of last year, she has witnessed what each wave of COVID-19 has done to the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta and how it has put a strain on hospital waiting times and resources.

As a scribe, she works six to seven hour shifts, three times a week, depending on her availability. Working alongside doctors, she transcribes information in real time about a patient’s condition to be input in the hospital’s record system. Despite working side-by-side with doctors, she says that it is the nurses who seem the most overworked.

“I hear a lot of nurses- I know nurses are overworked, not doctors, because I was sitting with one of the doctors who I was scribing with, and we were listening in on one of the nurse’s conversations, basically screaming ‘Oh my god, CHOA does not respect its employees. I’ve worked here for over 10 years, and they should have already given me a bonus raise as a nurse’ and she said, ‘No wonder why so many people are quitting and moving to other hospitals.’

Compared to doctors who work 8-hour shifts, nurses work 12-hour shifts at CHOA. Since the start of the pandemic, 18% of healthcare workers have quit their jobs, according to Morning Consult, a survey research company. At a time when nurses are needed the most, many of them appear to feel as though they are not compensated for what they have to deal with on a daily basis. According to research done by Lisa M. Haddad, Pavan Annamaraju, and Tammy J. Toney-Butler, the turnover rate of nurses is 8.8 % to 37.0%, depending on geographic location and nursing specialty. The increased percentages of turnover rates may be due to the pandemic and nurse burnout.

Percentage of hospitalized kids with COVID-19 // Data from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (as of March 8th, 2022)

While nurses may be bearing the brunt of the pandemic, hospitals themselves are running low on resources to combat the rise in COVID cases, especially following the omicron hit in January. Case numbers grew so rapidly that hospital systems in Atlanta made a public announcement to encourage residents to get vaccinated and limit trips to the emergency room for only emergencies.

Many hospitals do not provide treatment for COVID-19 unless the symptoms are severe, like difficulty with breathing or disorientation. If the symptoms are mild, Chan recommends patients to stay at home and quarantine, especially if they have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID or if they have been unmasked in public spaces.

When asked if people should not go to urgent care if they are experiencing COVID symptoms, Chan quickly assented, and added, “You’re first taking up rooms that could be given to patients who need it more, and second, you’re wasting your time because you’re not going to be seen until 4-5 hours later just for a COVID test. You can probably find it quicker at your PCP or at UC.”

Many hospitals are already dealing with everyday trauma, such as motor vehicle accidents or gunshot wounds, and based on the severity of the symptoms, a visit to the hospital can take a long time. Based on the symptoms, each patient is scored from one to five, with one being immediate care for life or death situations. For Chan, she mostly sees threes and fours, and for COVID cases for patients who are experiencing coughing and sneezing, it is considered a five. However, Chan has noted that there are severe cases of COVID that can rank as high as a two on the scale, but she has never witnessed a two and has only ever heard about it from other doctors.

The droves of parents and children visiting the hospital to get tested for COVID, many days working at the hospital seem never ending.

When people started realizing their symptoms could be similar to COVID or they needed COVID tests, numbers would start to skyrocket and the patient board in the emergency department would be up to the 90s and 100s which is a lot for one hospital because there’s only 50-ish rooms in the main department.”

Cases of children every Tuesday in CHOF hospitals // Data from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (as of March 8th, 2022)

For a hospital that is only equipped with about 50 rooms in the main department, this means the hospital has to open up different areas, such as fast-track or radiology rooms to accommodate the influx of patients. For the doctors who have to see every patient, this can be extremely taxing because there is always another patient to see.

While quality of care has not decreased, Chan noted that the doctors did have complaints.

“The main complaint is, ‘Once we discharge 10 patients, the board doesn’t even move.’ It still stays in the 90s because you do more in your shift than before. You’re seeing a million patients and trying to get the board of patients down. There’s just a lot more patients coming in.”

Healthcare workers are expected to show up to work every day and treat patients non-stop. This can create a huge toll on healthcare workers who are already facing everyday stressors, such as worrying about the MCAT or how to stay safe from COVID-19.

PCR cases over time in Georgia // Data from Georgia Department of Public Health

Chan also remarked that if patients are looking for a COVID-19 test, patients should not go to a hospital. Again, a visit to the hospital can take hours before a patient even sees the doctor. Once the patient actually sees the doctor because they suspect they have COVID-19, the doctor will provide a routine checkup on things such as eyes, ears, nose, and mouth just to make sure that nothing else is causing the symptoms. If there are no other abnormal symptoms or causes, the doctor will order a COVID-19 test that will not come in until after 24-hours. Thus, a doctor will most likely diagnose the patient with a viral infection and will recommend them to quarantine even after they get their test results back because it could be a false negative.

However, Chan noted that there are parents who are not satisfied with that answer, so the doctor will have to order a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Chan explained that most doctors will not do a PCR first because it is more costly for the hospital since it tests for all viruses, such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus. Chan does not recommend this because care for the patient does not change with what kind of test is used to detect the virus. Chan stated, “You don’t have to torture your kid with a nose swab because it’s not going to change how you’re going to care for your child.”

As such, Chan asks for those who are not in dire need of emergency care to look towards their primary care providers and urgent care before coming to the hospital. Chan urges people to educate themselves on which place provides which care because, “People don’t realize that it’s a virus, and if you are presenting with fever, you should already just isolate. There’s no cure. It’s a virus.”

Total reported cases, hospitalizations, and deaths // Data from GA Department of Public Health (as of 18th March, 2022)

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