Omicron variant leading to sharp rise in hospitalizations of the mostly unvaccinated

Sam Allen, director of Dougherty County Emergency Medical Services, urged during a Friday news conference that residents seek COVID testing at a physician's office or testing site to prevent overwhelming hospital emergency rooms.

ALBANY — There’s a new COVID in town, and it’s bringing the anticipated spike in cases, with the more transmissible variant expected to linger for weeks.

With an eye on increasing hospital admissions, officials speaking at a Friday news conference urged residents to take efforts to prevent overwhelming hospitals during this latest post-holiday surge.

On Friday, the Phoebe Putney Health System was treating 78 COVID patients, 61 in Albany and 17 in Americus.

“That’s 63 percent greater than last week,” Dr. James Black, director of emergency medicine at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany.

Of those hospitalized, 17 were in an intensive care unit and four were being assisted with breathing through ventilators. The average age of those patients was 56, and 82 percent had not been fully vaccinated.

“Unfortunately, people are still dying from COVID,” Black said. “Last week we had six deaths.”

The surging number of cases across the country has nearly depleted the supplies of monoclonal antibodies, a treatment that helped many patients avoid hospitalization and recover at home during the previous delta surge that started in August.

Currently the federal government is prioritizing the available treatments for those who are immunocompromised and the elderly who have not been vaccinated, Black said.

Because the omicron variant is several times more transmissible than the delta variant that was behind the summer surge, the current surge that hit in late December has sent large numbers to testing sites. Rapid home tests also have become nearly impossible to find.

To keep the hospital’s emergency room running efficiently to treat severe COVID cases and deal with the ordinary injuries and sickness, officials urged residents to seek testing at a physician’s office or testing sites operated seven days a week in the community.

“It’s a scary thought to think of our hospitals being full and there’s nowhere to go,” Dr. Charles Ruis, medical director for the Southwest Georgia Health District, said. “That’s not science fiction, that’s reality. We don’t want to wear out the people in our hospitals. They’re human beings.”

The best way to prevent ending up in the hospital is being vaccinated and boosted and also getting a flu shot, Ruis said. Individuals also should wear face masks and practice good hygiene to improve their chances of not getting infected or spreading the disease to others.

Influenza is expected to linger for several more months “and there is the possibility, if we have large numbers of patients with flu and COVID, of overwhelming our hospitals,” Ruis said.

Testing is available from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday at an 1150 W. Oakridge Drive site and from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. at the 1710 S. Slappey Blvd. health department. Pre-registration at (844) 778-2455 or at www.swhealthdistrict.org is encouraged but not required.

The surge in hospitalizations has been rapid, Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said. On Wednesday there were 52 patients in Albany, and the increase over three weeks is about 330 percent.

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