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Hundreds Of COVID-19 Cases Inundate Georgia Hospital


Look at a list of U.S. metro areas hardest hit by the coronavirus and you'll find some of the biggest cities in America - New York, Seattle, New Orleans. It makes intuitive sense to find the virus in crowded port cities that are closely tied to the wider world. But the list of hard-hit cities makes it clear that nowhere in America should consider itself safe because that list includes Albany, Ga., a small city, inland, where the biggest hospital is overwhelmed by hundreds of cases. Enrique Lopez, a doctor at Phoebe Putney Health System, posted a video that was replayed by ABC.


ENRIQUE LOPEZ: The problem is, is that every single COVID patient that we get isn't leaving. Every patient is still on the ventilator, still incredibly ill. That's another bed, another nurse, more medication, another dialysis machine. Every time you get that patient, you just check that - all of those things off the list.

INSKEEP: The CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, Ga., is Scott Steiner. He's on the line. Good morning, sir.

SCOTT STEINER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: It's worth noting that Dr. Lopez made that video last week. How are conditions at the hospital now?

STEINER: You know, they - every day is certainly different. By no means do we feel like - we're seeing it slowing. I would say some mornings seem a bit more hectic than others. And, you know, from last week, I can't say as if we're - we've bent the curve yet. We continue to see patients every morning.

INSKEEP: Do you have a bed for every patient?

STEINER: We do have a bed for every patient. We are - we have expanded into more and more COVID units. We opened our fourth COVID-only ICU, which is not normally an ICU. We did that two nights ago. And we have five other medical floors that are all COVID-only patients. So we continue to expand that capacity, but we've also had to transfer out a number of patients to other hospitals.

INSKEEP: I just want to emphasize that you're in a city of 73,000. You got a hospital there. You've got five floors of COVID-only patients. You've just added a sixth. And you're still transferring patients to other hospitals. And don't you also have some help from the National Guard to keep up with all of this?

STEINER: We do. We've had some great support from the governor, Governor Kemp and his team. We've, just in the last few days, gotten a number of National Guard folks here to help us, a few doctors and nurses and just some other helping. So we are grateful for that.

INSKEEP: We did a kind of scorecard on hospitals yesterday and learned that the key here, to state the obvious, is people. I mean, you do need beds. You need ventilators. You need other equipment. But you need qualified people to run any of this, and they need to be protected. How is your staff holding up?

STEINER: Yeah. You know, you hit it - you hit the nail on the head there. The real estate, the rooms, the buildings, that's great, but if you don't have the people, you're dead in the water. And our people - I've been saying - we've got 4,500 members of the Phoebe family, and I've been calling them warriors because they are just that. They go in - they run to the screams. They run into the fire. And they are doing exceptionally well. Are they tired? Are they weary? Would they all like to go back to whatever normal was before? Absolutely. But every patient is being cared for with incredible compassion, and we couldn't be any prouder of our team.

INSKEEP: You know, if somebody at this company is known to have been exposed to a person with coronavirus, they're sent away. They're supposed to go quarantine themselves. I assume that can't happen for your staff, right? They're exposed every day, and they have to just keep working.

STEINER: That's right. That's what we do; we take care of people, people in need, people that have disease, sometimes people that are in middle of an epidemic. We have been working since Day 1 to ensure that we have our - we have enough personal protective equipment, PPE, and whether it be N95s, other masks, gowns, face shields. We have never run out, though we've been down to less than a day of certain material.

We've got a team of people that access those resources. And we know if we don't keep our employees safe, our staff safe, then there will be no one to care for the patients. So we've got an incredible team. They're weary, but they're strong.

INSKEEP: Some of them are sick?

STEINER: We have had some employees - have been exposed and have come back sick. We have tested them. Of course, we send them home. And - but we've had a number of more than two dozen that have come back because we in our fourth week of this. And so we've had some that are sick, have gone home, have recovered and now are back to work. That just shows you how dedicated and how strong they are.

INSKEEP: Do you assume, then, that they may have immunity and can deal with patients more safely?

STEINER: There's no difference in how we expect our staff to protect themselves with protective gear each and every time they enter a patient room. Whether they think they have or they have immunity or not, they have to keep themselves safe, and that's our focus.

INSKEEP: There's been some reporting out of Albany that some people feel that this may have begun at a particular funeral, the particular outbreak, the severity of it. Do you feel you understand why your community is so hard hit?

STEINER: Well, we've certainly heard, and it's the job of the public health department and CDC. You know, they're kind of the investigators in any outbreak, whether it be something like this or anything else. We've certainly have heard that. I would say we've seen some things that could - you know, could confirm that.

But, you know, it shows you, I think, that the time this was happening, right in when supposedly these funerals were happening, in late February. Funerals are a perfect opportunity - a lot of crying, a lot of wiping of noses, a lot of shaking of hands, of hugging, of kissing, of touching, microphones being used to celebrate the person that has passed. So to me and to what we've looked at, it seems to be a perfect storm. But we'll leave the investigation up to DPH.

INSKEEP: The mayor of Albany was on the program a little bit earlier and found a warning in this for other communities where people may think they haven't been affected yet, and that is that the virus clearly spread - he was very frank about it - spread a few weeks before he realized how seriously his community was going to be affected.

STEINER: That's exactly right. This virus, you know, it can grow for two weeks without you even knowing, and that's what makes it fairly unique, and it can spread quickly. And there's no one person, there's no community, no race, no ethnic group, no males, females - it knows no boundaries. And so if you happen to touch the gas pump right after the person who's been infected who probably doesn't know they are, you know, you've got that chance of then getting it yourself.

INSKEEP: Mr. Steiner, hang in there.

STEINER: Yes. We appreciate it. Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: Scott Steiner, CEO of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.