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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.

Public health leaders from across North Georgia are encouraging the region's residents to get vaccinated and reduce the strain of COVID-19 on local health care systems and providers.

"We need your help like never before," the leaders said in a letter to the public. "The pandemic — its current surge driven by the highly transmissible delta variant — continues to spread throughout Northwest Georgia and is quickly becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Most new cases, hospitalizations and people in our critical care units on ventilators and advanced oxygen support are unvaccinated. COVID-19 vaccination is our best tool for reducing the overwhelming strain on our health care system, health care providers and EMS personnel."

The letter was signed by North Georgia Health District Director Dr. Zachary Taylor, Northwest Georgia Health District Director Dr. Gary Voccio, Hamilton Health Care System President and CEO Jeff Myers, AdventHealth Southeast Region CEO Mike Murrill, Floyd Health System CEO Kurt Stuenkel, Harbin Clinic CEO Kenna Stock, Piedmont Cartersville Medical Center CEO Chris Mosley and Redmond Regional Medical Center CEO John Quinlivan.

According to data provided by Hamilton Medical Center, 93% of patients in the hospital's intensive care unit with COVID-19 were unvaccinated. All nine such patients on ventilators at the medical center are unvaccinated.

Just last week, the ICU at nearby AdventHealth Gordon was running at 230% of its patient capacity. The hospital had already been at capacity for months with most patient hospitalizations attributed to the unvaccinated.

Other hospitals across the region are experiencing similar difficulties. Some have so struggled under the burden of COVID-19 that partnerships allowing local city employees to take shifts stocking and assisting staff with other duties have been necessary to keep emergency departments fully staffed and operational.

(READ MORE: Dalton declares state of emergency as Hamilton Medical Center sees jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations)

"While a few municipalities have declared a state of emergency, if you look across the regional health care landscape, there is no mistaking that we are experiencing a public health crisis," health leaders wrote in the leader. "COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased dramatically and are straining our local hospitals. Deaths, which can lag hospitalizations by a few weeks, are increasing significantly, leaving families broken and torn apart and front-line workers physically and emotionally exhausted."

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Department of Public Health reported that 44% of citizens in Georgia are fully vaccinated, and 52% have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. In the letter, health officials wrote that they hoped to see this number increase and that they hoped Georgians would not forget to be cautious post-vaccination. Breakthrough cases — the term used to describe those who become infected by the coronavirus after being fully vaccinated — are growing in number across Georgia, and they warn that hand washing, social distancing and masking in public settings where social distancing is not possible could save lives.

According to research cited in the letter, studies of more than 4.5 million fully vaccinated Georgians show that the fully vaccinated are at low risk of becoming infected and at "almost no risk" of being hospitalized or dying.

"The vaccines work," they wrote. "They are safe and they prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death. If you haven't been vaccinated, please protect yourself, your loved ones and your community by doing so."

(READ MORE: Patients praise Regeneron as antibody treatments continue in Dalton, Georgia)

The letter strongly urges those seeking COVID-19 testing to go to an appropriate testing site, rather than a hospital emergency department. To find a testing site in North Georgia, visit dph.georgia.gov or nghd.org. Testing is also available at most urgent care, primary care and pharmacy locations.

Vaccines are still free statewide for everyone, and identification is not required when getting vaccinated.

For more information on how to get vaccinated in North Georgia, visit nghd.org or nwgapublichealth.org. Contacts for other COVID-19 vaccine providers in the area are available at vaccines.gov.

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

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