Georgia hospital and health-care leaders pushed a top U.S. health official and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler Monday for more federal funding amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
At a roundtable talk in Atlanta, representatives from the state’s largest hospitals and nursing-home associations detailed growing concerns over maintaining care and curbing infections due to tight finances, difficulty procuring test kits and health disparities in minority communities.
They laid out challenges with retaining hospital and nursing staff, receiving enough sanitization materials and keeping seniors in long-term care facilities from becoming depressed due to prolonged isolation as the virus continues battering Georgia.
More federal funds for health-care providers in a second round of coronavirus relief will be critical to fend off a large increase in positive cases and intensive-care hospitalizations over the past month, several hospital executives said Monday.
“Anything we can get is important because the financial burden, especially in hot spots, has been really tremendous on health-care centers and hospitals,” said Dr. Jonathan Lewin, president and CEO of Emory Healthcare in Atlanta.
Monday’s talk was hosted by Loeffler, R-Ga., and Seema Verma, administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Loeffler, who has brought legislation to broaden insurance coverage for telemedicine, aims to focus on federal aid for schools, health-care providers and businesses as Congress hashes out another funding package.
So far, Loeffler has opposed calls to extend $600 weekly federal unemployment benefits in effect since April that are set to expire at month’s end, arguing many businesses have struggled to bring employees back to work amid unemployment benefits that may be higher than their regular paychecks.
“What we have to look at is making sure the relief goes to those most impacted,” Loeffler said. “We’re looking at restaurants going bankrupt, going out of business. We have to know that there are areas that have been more impacted than others and making sure we’re addressing that particular issue.”
State officials have helped increase staffing levels at around 50 hospitals and 70 long-term care facilities in Georgia via staff augmentation contracts since March, said Frank Berry, commissioner of the state Department of Community Health.
Keeping that extra support in place will be critical as the summer months wear on and hospitals face capacity issues as more patients are admitted, Berry said.
But positive COVID-19 cases and intensive-care hospitalizations are still climbing, sparking worries among hospitals and providers that health-care finances already pummeled by the virus since March could get worse.
Georgia continued to stagger under a heavy load of COVID-19 cases Monday amid one ray of hope — a broad test of an experimental vaccine for the illness that began with the first of 30,000 nationwide injections being given in Savannah.
Deaths continued to trend up statewide, while the number of confirmed patients in hospitals statewide rose enough to wipe out what had been five days of declining hospitalizations. The number of cases being reported each day remains elevated, but has shown signs of plateauing in recent days after spiraling upward since early June.
Georgia passed 3,500 deaths from the pandemic, with its seven-day average of deaths at the highest level on Monday since coronavirus infections began. Deaths are a trailing indicator of the severity of the outbreak, following the increase of infections and number of patients in hospitals.
Bartow County has had 1,367 total cases since the outbreak began, according to the state Department of Public Health, with 184 hospitalizations and 55 total deaths.
The state reported 3,181 patients in hospitals on Monday, close to the highest number since the outbreak began. Hospitalizations had dropped by more than 100 over the course of the last week before jumping up again on Monday.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that Georgia has a larger number of patients with COVID-19. In a statement on Twitter, the Georgia Department of Public Health said federal data included some long-term acute care and rehabilitation facilities, while state data is only from acute care hospitals. The state also said that state and federal data may be from different times.
The state pushed past 170,000 total infections on Monday. Georgia's share of positive tests remains elevated, coming in over 14% on Monday. While metro Atlanta counties have the largest number of infections, the largest cumulative numbers of infections per capita continue to be in counties in other parts of the state, including Echols, Chattahoochee, Stewart, Randolph and Bacon counties.
“Our volumes are significantly higher in this wave than they were in the previous,” said John Haupert, president and CEO of Grady Health System in Atlanta. “What we’re very concerned about now is there is not a great compliance with social distancing and masking in our community.”
Nursing homes stumbled early in the outbreak due to lack of training in infectious-disease control measures and a severe shortage of tests that could help facility staff quickly isolate infected residents.
Many elderly residents are showing signs of weight loss and depression due to their isolation as long-term care facilities remain locked down across the state, said representatives from several nursing-home groups.
“We are identifying the need that they have to see each other,” said Deborah Meade, board chair of the American Health Care Association.
Verma, the federal Medicaid administrator, said her agency has started sending “point-of-care” test kits to nursing homes across the country to conduct COVID-19 tests for residents and staff inside facilities rather than off-site. Around 1,000 kits have already been sent, she said.
Verma called those kits a “game changer” that would help elderly-care facilities curb infection rates so that residents can begin interacting with each other at a safe distance and potentially receiving visitors.
“This has been an incredibly difficult time,” Verma said. “I think the tests that we’re doing are really going to be that turning point and allowing for that reunification [with families], and allowing for them to have a better quality of life inside the nursing home.”
Health-care leaders also discussed infection and treatment disparities among minority communities, which have seen higher positive-case rates compared to white populations during the pandemic.
Those disparities could affect ongoing clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine, said several leaders. Minority communities have historically been under-represented in clinical trials and tend to express more distrust for the effectiveness of vaccines as a result.
Public messaging that resonates with those communities will be key to inoculating as many people as possible in minority communities once a vaccine is approved, said Laurie Reid, a registered nurse and member of the Atlanta Black Nurses Association.
“Vaccine is good all day long,” Reid said. “Vaccination [buy-in] is going to be another issue.”
In Macon, Mayor Robert Reichert vetoed an ordinance Monday that would have required face coverings in public throughout Macon-Bibb County. In a letter to commissioners, Reichert wrote that he didn't want to join the list of cities challenging Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp by enacting mask orders even though Kemp has banned them by executive order. A hearing in a lawsuit by Kemp against Atlanta's mayor and city council for exceeding the measures he allows is set for Tuesday if the governor and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms can't reach an agreement before then.
— Capitol Beat News and Associated Press contributed to this report.