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COVID-19 cases rise in Georgia, as some health care workers resist vaccinations

As COVID-19 cases rise across the country, one of the worst-hit areas right now is the Southeast. That includes Georgia, where many hospitals are at or near capacity. Georgia is also lagging behind many other states in giving out vaccinations. Judy Woodruff spoke with Dr. Shanti Akers, a pulmonologist at the Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, Georgia, to learn more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have reported, the new year begins, unfortunately, with more bad news about the coronavirus. There are rising cases across the country, and one of the worst hit right now is the Southeast.

    That includes the state of Georgia, where, while a lot of people are focused on politics and two Senate run-off campaigns, many hospitals are at or near capacity. The state set its own record just today, with more than 8,500 new COVID cases.

    And Georgia has been averaging more than 35 deaths a day for the past two weeks. That is about 30 percent higher than a month ago. At the same time, Georgia is lagging behind many others when it comes to the number of people getting vaccinations.

    Dr. Shanti Akers is a pulmonologist who is regularly treating patients with COVID. She is with the Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, located in Southwest Georgia.

    Dr. Akers, thank you so much for joining us again.

    Tell us, what is the situation right now at your hospital?

  • Dr. Shanti Akers:

    So, right now, unfortunately, since Thanksgiving, the cases have just exponentially risen.

    Pre-Thanksgiving, we were about in the 20s in terms of hospitalized cases. But that number has climbed up into the 90s. And, indeed, we are definitely seeing an uptick in the community cases as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I looked up population, Albany, about 75,000, about twice that in the metropolitan area.

    How are people treating this virus? Are they taking it seriously? Are they wearing masks? What do you see?

  • Shanti Akers:

    Well, I think, unfortunately, what's happened in a lot of parts of the country is true here, which is people are fatigued.

    And I think there are some places that are being more impressive with masking, social distancing than others. But, unfortunately, there are a number of restaurants and community places where masking is not being as strictly adhered to as it had been previously.

    And I think, unfortunately, we are seeing that shown in the number of cases that we're experiencing in the community.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, with regard to Phoebe Putney, the hospital where you work, are you able to handle the cases you have right now? What is the outlook, do you think, for the days ahead?

  • Shanti Akers:

    Well, I think our concern is that this is only going to continue to get worse. At present, I think we are able to manage with the caseload that we have. But, again, that's not managing necessarily to the extent that we would like to.

    Like I mentioned earlier, our cases were lower previous to Thanksgiving, in the 20s. And we were amply able to handle that. But, at this point, we have a satellite facility that we have cohorted the COVID patients in, and we are rapidly exceeding the beds that we have available, but more precious even then the beds is the staffing.

    And when we run out of staffing, that's when things really start to become of concern. And what we have already had to just start doing is, going forward, limiting the number of elective procedures that are completed that require hospital stay after the fact, because, unfortunately, those things take up precious resources, like nursing, beds and equipment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Akers, you were telling my colleague this afternoon that, for the — for the health care workers who've been at this nonstop from early this year, there is a sense of just being overwhelmed, of being exhausted with this.

    How are healthcare workers talking to each other about what you have to deal with every day?

  • Shanti Akers:

    I think there are those of us who are just incredibly fatigued.

    And I think it's hard to wake up day in, day out and sort of see the same thing play itself out. I mean, I think, at this point, the transmission is well understood. We know what things can mitigate risk, like masking and social distancing.

    And so it's frustrating, from just a global sense of just seeing people not doing the things that they can be to limiting spread, and then seeing that play out in the cases. And it's really hard, because these cases require so much care and attention. The patients stay in the hospital really long time.

    But, additionally, they're limited in the amount of time they can spend with their loved ones who visit. And so the situation is more than just how hard the day becomes or how hard it is to take care of the patients. It's — we experience that stress on so many levels.

    And then, similarly, when we go home, our ability to just blow off steam and visit our friends and relatives is itself limited. So, from every angle, it just feels like the situation becomes incredibly frustrating, and each day somehow more so than the day before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is hard to imagine.

    I also want to ask you about vaccinations, because they are starting to be available. Do you feel you're getting what you should have at this point? And are people accepting the idea that they should have vaccinations?

  • Shanti Akers:

    Well, I think we were very fortunate to have many doses made available to us a few weeks ago.

    I myself did get vaccinated, along with several of my colleagues. I think my concern, however, is that there's a good portion of our staff that has chosen not to vaccinate, and for many different reasons. And I think, unfortunately, that, again, puts a fear of increased risk and exposures to the staff that are at greatest risk of potentially obtaining the virus themselves through their care of the COVID patients.

    I would definitely like to see more of our colleagues immunized, for sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think that hesitation is about?

  • Shanti Akers:

    I think there's a few factors in that.

    I think I have heard colleagues say things such as they feel the process was potentially rushed. They feel that there wasn't maybe enough people involved in the trials, and a lot of different just concerns that are all based on fear and I think a little bit of lack of understanding in terms of how aggressively studied all the results from the virus trials have been.

    And I think — I hope to try to reassure some of my own colleagues by — they see how many of our own physicians, including those in critical care and pulmonology, have gotten vaccinated. I'm hoping that some of those fears are allayed by seeing how many of their own colleagues have chosen to get vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's clear you have your work cut out for you, not only with the surge in cases, but then with persuading colleagues and others who work in health care how important these vaccinations are, not to mention the general public.

    Dr. Shanti Akers, thank you very much for joining us. And, again, we wish you the best in coming days as this new year gets under way.

  • Shanti Akers:

    Thank you very much.

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