VALDOSTA – Life on South Georgia Medical Center's COVID-19 units and the four floors holding them changes each day – and each night.

April Bennett, an SGMC nurse manager, said one day can be far more hectic than the next. Nurses and other medical staff must stay on guard because they're basically "running all day," she added.

According to SGMC data, the patient count rose to the low 100s and stayed in the high 90s from mid-August to now. The high number of virus cases has led to quite a few changes within the hospital.

Four out of five floors at SGMC are designated for the care of COVID-19 patients – a gradual but dramatic change as the delta variant surge increased hospitalizations.

Early this week, 83 virus patients were in the hospital's care – the lowest it's been since before Aug. 11. Several of the patients were on ventilators. 

Carts filled with personal protective equipment sit outside of each patient's room so nurses and emergency room technicians don't have to go anywhere else for it.

"We keep gowns here, too," Bennett said. "Everything's ready right here at a moment's notice."

Staff can monitor patients through windows so they do not have to enter rooms. The windows are usually adorned with signs based on the status of the patient, such as some have signs stating "KN-95 needed" and some do not.

Lack of a sign doesn't mean staff members can enter without masks, rather a disposable mask will suffice.

Alongside the visual monitoring, each floor has a centralized desk with a monitor reporting each patient's vitals and oxygen levels on-screen. The machines reporting vitals are sensitive and have staff running room to room more often than not.

A patient "can be fine, their stats (may) be in the 90s, and they can do something as simple as trying to sit up, and their (blood oxygen levels) goes to 60-70%," Bennett said. "If you don't respond immediately, then it can go bad quickly."

There is a constant need for fresh rather than recycled oxygen, so the COVID-19 floors filter in outdoor oxygen. It makes the floors noticeably more humid – the air conditioning does run, but it's a better atmosphere for breathing.

Usually there are no intubated patients — patients on ventilators — on the fourth floor of the COVID-19 unit, but it sometimes houses them until a room opens in the intensive care unit where they're usually cared for — Floor 2T.

Bennett said Floor 2T is a sad sight, with the number of patients intubated there.

"It's a really terrible thing to watch a patient struggle for every single breath they take for weeks," Bennett said, adding she doesn't think people truly understand the dangers of COVID-19. "Even as a nurse, until I came here, I didn't comprehend how bad these patients were."

The average age of COVID-19 patients and COVID-19 ventilated patients are respectively 56 and 54 years of age as of data taken Aug. 27 through Sept. 2; however, Bennett said SGMC is seeing a lot of patients in their 20s and 30s.

According to the same data, 93% of the SGMC COVID-19 patients and 99% of ventilated COVID-19 patients are not vaccinated. 

Only 31% of Lowndes County is fully vaccinated with 37% (35,921 people) of the county having at least one dose (42,761 people).

"I wish the public could see a little piece of what it's like," Bennett said, "and they might change their minds about the vaccine."

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