As COVID numbers surge, Atlanta field hospital reopening its doors

By Scott Trubey and Andy Miller

The reactivation of the field hospital in the Georgia World Congress Center this week is a sign of how health facilities are struggling as the state’s number of COVID-19 patients continues to soar.

The facility in the Atlanta downtown convention center opened and closed twice earlier in the pandemic. Now it’s needed again.

The bed configuration at the Congress Center.      Photo: Curtis Compton/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp and Chris Stallings, the director of the state’s emergency management agency, led a media tour of the facility Tuesday. The facility is expected to open for patients Thursday, and ultimately ramp up to 60 staffed beds.

The GWCC facility will serve COVID patients who require a hospital bed but not intensive care, officials said.

State data show 4,394 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in Georgia as of about 2 p.m. Tuesday. That’s more than three times the number of patients hospitalized in mid-October and 37 percent more than the summer peak.

Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville

The Northeast Georgia Health System was treating 322 COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday, setting yet another new record, according to the Gainesville Times. The total was 10 more than the day before and 46 more than a week ago. There are no beds available in the ICU. The health system is pleading with community members to take precautions and avoid large gatherings this holiday season, and it has rolled out cots into an overflow space for patients.

The state’s Department of Public Health reported that Tuesday’s single-day total of new cases reported exceeded 9,700, including those from rapid antigen tests.

The state has moved into the Top 20 for most new cases per capita in the last 14 days as infection rates have declined in the Midwest and risen in the South, the Associated Press reported. Nearly 15 percent of those tested in Georgia have had the virus over the last week, the highest rate since early in the pandemic, although holiday-related changes in testing may be affecting that number, AP said.

Kemp said the GWCC facility will remain open through the end of January at a cost of about $16 million to $18 million, with contract staff managed by Grady Health System.  Currently, 112 beds with equipment are available at the site.

The governor urged Georgians, particularly those 18 to 29 — who lead the state in new infections — to heed public health guidelines such as wearing a mask, limiting gatherings, practice social distancing and washing hands. He said people should opt for virtual New Year’s Eve gatherings to help stop the spread.

Gov. Kemp views the Congress Center setup.     Photo: Curtis Compton/AJC

Kemp said Georgia is looking at other ways to expand hospital bed capacity if needed. He emphasized that people should seek care for non-COVID conditions if they need it, and should not try to wait out the pandemic.

“The real issue there is the staffing because of what we’re seeing going on in the rest of the country,” Kemp said. “The staffing issue has been the hardest part for any governor, any hospital CEO, and it doesn’t matter what state you’re in.”

Kemp pointed to an improving situation in Midwestern states, and he said he hopes that will make more contract medical workers available if Georgia needs them.

The state recently extended a contract for medical staffing with a unit of Alpharetta-based Jackson Healthcare, which may wind up paying the company more than $300 million.

The state opened the GWCC field hospital twice this year to serve as a relief valve for hospitals. The first time, in the spring, the Congress Center saw relatively light patient loads, but more patients were directed to the facility in the summer.

During the tour, Kemp and Stallings showed reporters about 4,000 pallets of personal protective equipment stored at the convention center. The PPE makes up part of an 80-day stockpile of medical gear that the state can use to resupply hospitals and other providers amid the coronavirus surge.

Scott Trubey is a reporter for the AJC.