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Staff Photo by Kelcey Caulder / Hamilton Medical Center has limited visitors as numbers of positive COVID cases and hospitalizations continue to rise.

The city of Dalton, Georgia, has declared a state of emergency in response to the rising number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Whitfield County, permitting city employees to provide much-needed assistance at Hamilton Medical Center.

Monday's decision came just days after the hospital announced it would suspend some elective procedures due to an observed 53% increase in positive cases of the virus.

According to an agreement between Dalton and Hamilton Medical Center outlining an emergency partnership, the coronavirus surge has placed "extraordinary stress" on the hospital and its staffing. City employees who volunteer to supplement staff at the hospital are meant to help ease the burden for at least the next 12 weeks.

City spokesperson Bruce Frazier said all employees, not just those employed at the fire and police departments, are eligible to assist at the hospital while the state of emergency is in place. Those without paramedic or emergency medical technician training can still help with stocking and handling supplies and providing general assistance to the regular hospital staff, he said.

No city employee, Frazier said, is required to take shifts at the hospital, and there will be no penalties for those who opt not to do so.

Those who do choose to participate will be paid for their assistance at a 30% premium above their base pay rate and will continue to receive full benefits, including worker's compensation coverage. Any worker's compensation expenses incurred for occupational injury or disease in excess of the city's standard premiums will be covered by Hamilton Health Care System Inc. under the agreement.

Likewise, Hamilton Health Care System Inc. is responsible for reimbursing the city for all wages of all city employees assigned to assist at the hospital.

While working at the hospital, the agreement says, city employees will not be allowed to perform duties except under the "supervision and direction of Hamilton Health Care System nurses, physicians, designated technicians, or designated Hamilton Health Care System staff."

The agreement says city employees will be asked to wear a distinctive badge that indicates they are employed by the city and not the hospital.

As of Monday afternoon, 63 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 at Hamilton Medical Center. Of those 63 patients, 10 had been vaccinated. Twelve were in the hospital's intensive care unit, and 8 were on ventilators.

Of the 12 patients in the ICU, one was vaccinated. Of those on ventilators, 7 were unvaccinated.

"We need people in the community to get vaccinated," said Dr. Brian Delashmitt, Hamilton Health Care System's chief medical officer. "You're far more likely to need hospitalization if you get COVID and you're unvaccinated. While there are breakthrough cases with people who are vaccinated getting COVID, these cases are often people with other health issues or immunocompromised systems.

"We certainly don't want our situation to go back to where it was about a year ago, but it's on that track," he said. "We are all in this together, and it takes all of us to stop the spread of the virus."

The Georgia Department of Public Health reported 40% of Whitfield County residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Tuesday, and 35% had been fully vaccinated.

Whitfield County residents can get the vaccine at no cost, regardless of health care coverage, through the North Georgia Health District. No appointment or identification is required to be vaccinated at public health departments in Cherokee, Fannin, Gilmer, Murray, Pickens and Whitfield counties.

"For people who are vaccine-hesitant, I encourage you to talk to your physician, your friends and your family," said Dr. Michael Hartley, a vascular surgeon at Hamilton. "There's a lot of information on the internet. Some of it is good information. Some of it, unfortunately, isn't good information. Your primary care physician, in whom you have trust, is who you should reach out to for help filtering through the information that you've encountered."

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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