Hamilton County hospitals see record number of COVID-19 patients as many Georgia hospitals hit capacity

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Occupational Therapist Cori Cohen works with a patient inside the COVID intensive care unit at Erlanger on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Hamilton County hospitals reached 244 on Thursday - a record high for the pandemic - as an unrelenting coronavirus surge pushes health systems across the region to the brink.

Of those hospitalized patients, 65 were in need of intensive care and 103 were Hamilton County residents, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.

An additional 10 patients were listed as possible COVID-19 patients awaiting testing. The previous record for COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county was 242 patients on Dec. 31.

Dr. Chris Young, chief of staff at Erlanger Health System, said during a hospital board meeting Thursday that the current wave of hospitalizations - which is fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, low vaccination rates and relaxed mitigation measures - is projected to continue for at least two to three more weeks.

"We should expect to have a substantial number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital for the next month or so," Young said. "It's frustrating as a physician, and speaking on behalf of medical staff and the nurses that are taking care of these patients, to understand that many of these patients are in the hospital simply because they weren't vaccinated."

Erlanger CEO Dr. William L. Jackson said during the meeting that the health system isn't alone in experiencing a dramatic patient increase in recent weeks.

"It's not just here - it's regionally - and it is truly a source of significant operational pressure for us right now, as it is in many other hospitals across the region, the Southeast and the country," Jackson said.

A Thursday news release from the Georgia Department of Public Health states that "the current surge of COVID cases throughout Georgia is stretching hospital and EMS personnel and resources to unprecedented levels."

Many hospitals in Georgia have had to "declare themselves on diversion," according to the release. Diversion is a term hospitals use to notify ambulances that patients should be transported to other facilities if possible. Diversion does not apply to individuals seeking emergency medical care, and those experiencing a medical emergency should still call 911 and ask for assistance, the release states.

As of Thursday morning, Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton, Georgia, listed its emergency room on diversion, while Advent Health's Gordon County campus was nearing emergency room capacity and diverting intensive care unit traffic.

(READ MORE: Dalton, Georgia, to offer COVID-19 antibody treatment at drive-in clinic)

Advent Health Murray was accepting normal ambulance traffic but listed its ER as "severely overcrowded."

CHI Memorial Georgia in Catoosa County was the only Northwest Georgia hospital accepting normal ambulance traffic as of Thursday morning.

Hamilton County hospitals often experience patient influxes when Georgia hospitals are strained because of their close proximity to the state line.

Dr. Charles Woods, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and CEO of Children's Hospital at Erlanger, said during Thursday's board meeting that what sets this wave apart from previous COVID-19 surges is the rate at which children are being sickened by the disease.

"They're not necessarily getting more ill than before. But that greater proportion is putting a few more of them in the hospital," he said, adding that children are also sick with other viruses that normally circulate in winter months.

"You add a layer of COVID on top of that - when we're having what would normally be winter in the summer, if you will, from a virus standpoint," Woods said. "You've seen some children's hospitals at least hitting capacity in some areas, and we've been on the edge."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.