ATLANTA — State agencies are prepping COVID-19 resources for a potential second wave of cases in Georgia.
Planning has been underway for several weeks, according to state officials handling coronavirus response.
The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency and Georgia National Guard are gathering personal protective equipment, temporary hospital beds and infection control supplies in an effort to get a head start on combatting another round of cases — especially in rural areas.
Some of the state’s COVID-19 beds originally set up in the World Congress Center are destined for Baldwin County. Eighty makeshift beds are moving to Milledgeville’s Youth Challenge Academy run by the Georgia National Guard.
The Department of Defense recommended state budget writers shutter the campus — the department’s newest youth program that has suffered from staffing hardships and recorded the lowest graduation rates.
But the closure gives the state an additional resource for emergency COVID-19 response if needed, Adj. Gen. Tom Carden told CNHI.
“The budget realities are what they are but the good news is we’re using the resources that we have for the good of the citizens of Georgia,” he said. “While we hope we don't have a second wave of COVID-19, there's no guarantee that we won’t and we’re doing everything we can right now.”
The state purchased the 200-bed makeshift hospital originally set up in the World Congress Center based in Atlanta. The additional 120 beds will be stored and ready to be shipped where they’re needed — if they’re needed — across the state.
While only a handful of patients were housed there, the purchase gave officials extra capacity to move elsewhere if the hospitals are overwhelmed with patients in the future.
Carden said the transition of the beds gives National Guard members an idea of how long it would take to assemble overflow facilities.
Milledgeville is a central location in the state, he said, so guardsmen are able to get there quickly if they’re called.
“We're pretty stable right now in terms of the numbers we’re seeing. (COVID-19) is not just going away, but it's stable and hospital capacity looks much better than it did,” Carden said. “We have got to be a learning organization, so when we have resources we have to stage those resources and be ready for a challenging day. And pray that it never comes.”
Homer Bryson, Georgia Emergency Management Agency director, said temporary medical facilities attached to hospitals in Macon, Rome, Gainesville and Albany will stay “on site and available to turn on within very short notice.”
Bryson said state agencies have been planning PPE purchases and distribution, infection control efforts, additional testing site locations, a contact tracing reboot among other things that will be critical in combatting a second wave.
“We're much better prepared because we do have a bed space, we do have ventilators and we will have more PPE,” he told CNHI. “We've got a structure that's in place.”
The pandemic outbreak has highlighted lack of preparation for a public health crisis, not just in Georgia, but across the nation. Early shortages of PPE and testing collection kits for hospitals and county health departments responding to the outbreak led to a delayed response.
Bryson said if a second wave hits, state agencies will be able to respond much faster as the governor has ordered a state stockpile of PPE and supplies.
“I think moving forward, the startup time would be much, much less than it was originally with this,” he said. “Of course, part of the startup issue was simply the lack of PPE — it just wasn't available. That is still somewhat of a challenge but it's not the issue that it was a month ago or two months ago.”
In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention briefing last week, Dr. Jay Butler, COVID-19 incident manager, said it’s important to recognize the “pandemic is not over.”
“In the coming weeks, we could see increases in the number of cases of COVID-19 as states reopen,” he said. “As there's an increase in public gatherings as we move into the summer across the country, it's too soon to tell if this will happen. The CDC is working closely with state health departments to monitor the disease activity and to support responses to any increases.”
Georgia is inching closer to being fully reopened and as it does, health experts and response agencies are bracing for an increase in cases.
Part of the National Guard efforts has been to increase access to care in rural and underserved areas as well as execute a sweeping response to COVID-19 infections in nursing homes.
“The governor's directive to us was to make sure that no Georgians suffered because we couldn't get them to the appropriate level of care,” Carden said.
The Guard put together a disinfecting training video for nursing homes and assisted living facilities and will train employees in person during the final few weeks of their deployment.
A positive result of the state's spending on COVID-19 resources is now that the state owns assets such as the makeshift hospital, Bryson said, the emergency management agency will be able to use it for other things like natural disasters.
“Most of what we're doing as far as temporary bed space is something that's not limited to the COVID-19 response,” he said. “These are now state-owned assets and we will have sites available for perhaps a hurricane event or if you have some other medical health emergency down the road.”
But even after two tornados have hit the state during the pandemic — one in the northern part of the state and the other in South Georgia — the agency is still trying to figure out what social distancing in a large-scale emergency shelter would look like.