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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference at Lockheed Martin on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Marietta, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

ATLANTA (AP) — COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are on the cusp of surpassing January peaks in Georgia as hospitals worried Monday that the delta variant of the respiratory illness threatens to suck some Georgia hospitals dry of medical oxygen, a key treatment for people struggling to breathe.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order calling up as many as another 1,500 National Guard soldiers to help short-staffed hospitals with nonmedical jobs, on top of the 1,000 previously authorized. Also, teachers and state employees insured by the state health plan will qualify for a cash incentive to get vaccinated.

The Republican governor is steadfastly focusing on voluntary vaccination as a solution to the pandemic, spurning other interventions such as mask mandates, capacity reductions in public places or efforts at surveillance testing that could help shut down the chain of infection.

"It's just causing division, it's causing people's blood pressure to go up," he said of arguments about masks. "We need to continue to educate and advocate, for people to get the vaccine."

The state Department of Public Health on Monday released weekend numbers showing that at a Saturday peak, Georgia's seven-day rolling average for cases was just below 9,591, just below the Jan. 11 peak of 9,635. About 5,600 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized across Georgia on Monday, nearly one-third of all people in hospitals. That's just short of the record of 5,715 set on Jan. 13.

Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said hospital emergency rooms are overrun by people seeking COVID-19 tests. She said the state is trying to set up testing sites near hospitals to relieve some of the burden. Kemp said one of the jobs of the Guard members may be to direct people to those testing sites from emergency rooms.

Hospitals worldwide have reported spot shortages of oxygen during the pandemic. Among U.S. hospitals, those shortages have been concentrated in the Southeast in recent weeks.

Amanda Forster, a spokesperson for Premier Inc, which helps manage supplies for hospitals, said the shortage is still a "current concern, but we are starting to see some movement and action on the part of FEMA, which we hope will ease the pain."

Kemp on Monday renewed a waiver on truck weight limits and how long drivers can be on the road in order to help facilitate the flow of oxygen.

Anna Adams, a spokesperson for the Georgia Hospital Association, said that some hospitals began to see shortages about 10 days ago, especially smaller, rural hospitals that weren't used to administering so much oxygen to so many patients. She said vendors have been working to increase shipments and larger hospitals have been sharing methods to conserve oxygen.

"Typically, when a rural or critical access hospital has this many inpatients requiring oxygen or intubation, they could attempt to transfer some patients to larger facilities for a higher level of care," Adams wrote in an email. "Unfortunately, this COVID surge is impacting hospitals' census numbers statewide, and it has become increasingly challenging, and in some cases impossible, to transfer patients."

Kemp said that beyond about 180 now posted, Georgia is unlikely to be able to provide any more National Guard medical personnel. But he said other Guard members could do nonmedical work.

The governor said the soldiers could "direct the traffic, tell people, don't come in the emergency room to get tested, go to the health department that's two blocks away. You know where do I park, helping in the cafeterias, cleaning, any of those jobs that they just need help with, turning rooms in hospitals."

Kemp also announced he was sending another $4.5 million to the Georgia Coordinating Center, a group that tries to help direct emergency medical traffic to hospitals with capacity.

The Georgia State Health Benefit Plan, which provides health insurance to more than 325,000 teachers and state employees, will offer a $150 cash card or $480 in health care credit to any member who gets vaccinated before Nov. 30, including those who are already vaccinated. Kemp has already designated Friday as a special state holiday to encourage state employees to receive inoculation.

More than 92% of intensive care beds were in use Monday, roughly equal with the number of ICU beds in use in late January. Hospitals in regions around Macon, Rome and Waycross were reporting they were using more than 100% of intensive care beds. Hospitals in the region around Athens reported having one spare ICU bed at one point Monday, while hospitals in the region around Albany reported having two spare ICU beds.

Nearly 50 hospitals statewide were turning away ambulances carrying either all patients or intensive care patients Monday, according to the Georgia Coordinating Center.

 

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