‘The fear you see in people’s eyes:’ Inside a COVID-19 ICU in north Georgia

HALL COUNTY, Ga. — Channel 2 Action News got an inside look at a COVID-19 critical care unit on Monday.

Channel 2′s Tony Thomas was inside the Northeast Georgia Medical Center, which was treating 188 COVID-19 patients at the Gainesville facility and 287 systemwide.

Hospital officials said they are full, and the surge is only expected to grow.

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In just the hour and a half that Thomas and his photographer were inside the unit, two COVID-19 patients died on the floor they were touring.

“If I had one word it would be heartbreaking. It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Dr. Erine Raybon-Rojas said. “They’re asking me if they are going to be ok, and the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’”

Nurses told Thomas the situation is getting worse by the day.

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“Every room is full,” critical care nurse Elizabeth Larkins said. “As soon as a patient gets better or dies, we clean that room and there’s another patient waiting in the emergency department.”

Raybon-Rojas, who is a critical care physician, said she is struggling with demand.

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“Usually, I can’t even make it through rounds before there are code blues, or rapid response,” Raybon-Rojas said. “I think one of the toughest things is when you need me, you are not in a good space, and the fear you see in people’s eyes when you are talking to people almost haunts me.”

Down in the emergency department, nurses work on patients inside ambulances because there’s no room inside.

Charge Nurse Kelly LaCerra was in tears as she talked about how much worse this wave is than the previous peak in January.

“Way worse,” LaCerra said. “People are way younger, and way sicker. It’s so horrible. (People) don’t understand how horrible it is up here. These patients are suffering, and I think the community needs to see that.”

Dr. Mohak Dave, the chief of emergency services, said they are running out of spaces to even put ambulances.

“There are no parking spots for ambulances right now,” Dave said.

Doctors predict this surge will be greater than last January, when at one point, they were treating 355 COVID-19 patients.

“We are going to be really strained for the next 4 - 6 weeks as we go through this,” Dr. John Delzell said. “We expect it to peak some time in about two weeks, then it will take several weeks to really get back down to a level that feels manageable.”

There is help on the way. The hospital system has requested another 30 National Guard members. Seventeen are already on site. Hospital system CEO Carroll Burrell said her biggest concern right now is staffing.