Villa Rica’s hospital has been at near 200% occupancy in the last two weeks. Stressed by COVID patients, the facility has also been diverting some patients to other hospitals.

According to Tanner Health System, there were 39 COVID patients at the facility on Sept. 1, the latest date for which information was available. The hospital has 145 licensed beds, meaning that almost one-third (28.9%) of them was occupied by coronavirus patients, stretching hospital resources for non-COVID patients.

“The inpatient units of the hospital are quite crowded,” said Eric Dalton, vice president and administrator of Tanner Medical Center/Villa Rica. “We’re utilizing additional space, like pre/post rooms, to provide care. Overall, morale remains pretty good, considering our situation. We know we have a mission, and we’re focused on our patients — but the staff is tired.”

On Friday, Loy Howard, president and CEO of the Tanner system, said that the three facilities in the west Georgia area were “overwhelmed” with patients. A chart released by the hospital system on Aug. 30, showed that the Villa Rica facility was at 208% occupancy with COVID and non-COVID patients. An update of the chart released on Tuesday showed the VR hospital was at 198% occupancy.

The numbers of COVID patients — the majority of them unvaccinated for the virus — now match the numbers of COVID patients seen last July, when the pandemic was previously thought to have reached its peak.

Data from the Georgia Department of Health shows that only about one-third of the residents of both Carroll and Douglas county are fully vaccinated — despite plentiful supplies of the freely available COVID vaccines.

Dalton said that the hospital has been improvising to find space for all the patients it is treating.

“We’re utilizing non-standard care sites for inpatient care,” he said. “It’s not ideal; our traditional inpatient rooms are designed for patients to be comfortable for days while emergency department exam rooms and pre/post spaces are designed to keep patients for a few hours. We’ve also brought in an external care site at our emergency department ambulance bay that’s helping us provide care for the more minor emergencies there, relieving some of the pressure on the emergency department.”

The crowds of unvaccinated patients in Villa Rica have placed the facility on “diversion” status for at least the past two weeks. This term, used by the Georgia Coordinating Center — a system used by EMS personnel transporting patients to the state’s hospitals — does not apply to emergency patients, hospital officials say, but can impact patients being brought to the hospital for other reasons.

According to the Coordinating Center’s website, Tanner Medical Center / Villa Rica was in “severe” status, affecting the hospital’s emergency room, intensive and critical care units, as well the ST-Elevated Myocardial Infarction unit, or STEMI. This refers to a particularly serious form of heart attack.

Tanner’s Carrollton facility was in a similar status.

All of Tanner’s facilities, including Higgins General Hospital in Bremen, and its Wedowee, Alabama, hospital draw patients from across the west Georgia region.

“While our facilities are struggling to keep pace with the surging volume of COVID-19 patients, we are continuing to provide care for other medical emergencies as well,” said Deborah Matthews, R.N., chief nursing officer for the Tanner system. “The pandemic hasn’t stopped heart attacks, strokes, trauma, and other such emergencies.”

Matthews said by email last week that despite the status of the hospitals “it is vital” that persons having symptoms of an emergency not delay in calling 911 or to obtain transport to one of Tanner’s emergency rooms.

“In a health emergency, minutes matter,” Matthews said. “Regardless of the status listed on the GCC site, we have an obligation to accept medical emergencies and walk-in patients presenting to the emergency department, and provide the best care possible.”

The current surge in hospitalizations is being attributed to the Delta variant of the original COVID-19 virus that first entered the west Georgia area in March 2020. Viruses mimic living organisms in that they evolve, or mutate, to stay ahead of whatever exists in a person’s body that might kill it.

So long as the virus remains alive within its human host population, it will continue to mutate, health experts say. So far, the existing vaccines have proven effective against the Delta variant, but there are new variants on the horizon that may prove resistant unless there are wider efforts to contain them.

Not all COVID cases require hospitalization, but the more serious do. And the most serious of those cases must be placed on a ventilator to assist their breathing.

According to Tanner’s information released Tuesday, of the 117 COVID patients hospitalized on that date, only four had been vaccinated, meaning that 96% were unvaccinated. Of the 27 patients then on a ventilator, none had been vaccinated.

Additionally, of the 115 COVID deaths recorded at the hospital since February — when the vaccines became widely available — only seven were persons who had been vaccinated.

Dalton said Wednesday that the Villa Rica intensive care unit was “over-capacity.” Critical patients, he said, were occupying rooms on the medical/surgical unit.

“A large number of our ICU patients are on ventilators,” he said.

“We don’t have a specific COVID-19 unit in Villa Rica, but we’re taking precautions to keep infectious patients off our obstetrics floor,” Dalton added. “Our infection prevention protocols are stringent, ensuring the safety of non-COVID-19 patients — including patients having surgical procedures, diagnostic imaging tests, maternity patients, and others.”

Meanwhile, Dalton said that the staff at the Villa Rica facility “have gone above and beyond” to ensure patients receive proper care.

“We’re taking advantage of our abilities as a regional health system,” Dalton said. “We have a fantastic float pool of dedicated nurses, and we’re able to draw from other clinical areas if necessary to deliver care. We’re also relying on contract staffing when necessary, bringing in additional staff as needed to fill gaps.”

Staffing at all medical facilities has been an issue because of a national shortage of nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists, and other hospital specialties.

“It’s also been challenging keeping up the support staff, like environmental services and food and nutrition services, that are so important to our operations,” Dalton said. “Our human resources department has done great work recruiting and onboarding additional staff, but we’re feeling the crush of the vacant positions we have throughout the facility.”

Unvaccinated people, who are exposing themselves and others to the Delta variant, outnumber vaccinated people in both Carroll and Douglas counties.

The State Department of Health was reporting Tuesday that 77,586 doses of the two-dose vaccines had been administered in Carroll County since the vaccines became available.

For Douglas County, there have been 118,666 doses administered.

Yet the numbers of fully vaccinated people in both counties only hover around one-third of the total population.

In Carroll County, only 31% of the population has received both shots of the virus. In Douglas County, the number is 39%.

The state reports that there have been 8,861 cases of COVID recorded in Carroll County since the pandemic began, with an official toll of 137 confirmed deaths and a probable 121 more fatalities.

In Douglas County, there have been 15,199 cases as of Tuesday, with 204 confirmed deaths and 46 additional “probable” deaths.