The metro Atlanta nurse who died last week of COVID-19 worked at Piedmont Henry Hospital, two employees of the suburban facility said.
The employees, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation, said the RN who died of coronavirus worked with cardiac patients. One of the employees, also a nurse, said she believed the RN who died became infected during her work at Piedmont Henry.
The individual is the first Georgia nurse to die from COVID-19, according to the Georgia Nurses Association.
She is believed to have been a travel nurse. These RNs, who work for independent staffing agencies, fill in short-term staffing gaps, mostly in hospitals, and typically during nursing shortages.
Georgia is dealing with a major nursing shortage, and hospitals are constantly recruiting RNs.
Piedmont Healthcare did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls from Georgia Health News to confirm the death, except for a single sentence, delivered by email Saturday: “Regarding your inquiry, we don’t have any facts.”
Piedmont Henry Hospital, located in Stockbridge in Henry County, has one of the busiest ERs in metro Atlanta. The hospital also has treated a number of coronavirus patients.
An infectious disease physician, Dr. Melina Diaz, said last week that Piedmont Henry and two other hospitals in Atlanta’s southern suburbs — Southern Regional Medical Center in Riverdale and Piedmont Fayette Hospital in Fayetteville — were ‘‘overwhelmed’’ with COVID-19 patients, according to the Clayton News-Daily.
Diaz spoke March 30 at a specially convened meeting of the Forest Park City Council. “Truly, this is an unprecedented time,” Diaz said, according to the News-Daily. “We’re having many, many cases come into our hospital. All the hospitals in our neighbor towns are overwhelmed. Our main need is that we don’t have gowns and we don’t have enough nurses. We have multiple patients that need to be ruled out, we’re waiting for the tests to come back. We still have some ventilators, which is good, but we really need help to protect our personnel, our staff.”
At Piedmont Henry Hospital, a 215-bed hospital, “we have 31 cases and 16 on the vent, which is a huge burden to the hospital,’’ she said.
Both Piedmont Henry employees who spoke to GHN said there are shortages of critical supplies at the hospital. They said there is rationing of masks.
One of the employees said some hospital workers are given an N95 respirator mask – the most protective type — at the beginning of the shift and are told to turn it in at the end, then reuse it on subsequent days.
N95 masks filter particles out of the air, and are typically used when doctors and nursing are treating patients with infectious diseases that spread through the air. Normally, health care providers use a new mask for each patient or procedure.
“We’re not willing to run out of N95 masks,” Dr. Susan Ray, an infectious disease specialist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, said in a phone interview with the New York Times in early March. “That’s not OK at my hospital.”
But nurses and other medical providers in New York City, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere have complained they are being told to reuse these masks. The CDC has relaxed its guidelines for use of masks during the pandemic.
A Los Angeles Times article, though, quoted a physician saying, “I feel like I’m just going to end up using the same N95 mask and eventually it’ll get so tattered I’ll get exposed.” The doctor did not have permission from her institution to speak to the media, according to the Times.
With the surge in cases of COVID-19, getting enough personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a constant struggle for hospitals in Georgia, the nation and the world. These include face shields and goggles, masks, gowns and gloves. Manufacturing of more PPE has become a governmental priority.
The PPE shortage here has drawn criticism from nurses in a Georgia Nursing Association survey.
Piedmont Healthcare said in mid-March, in an email to GHN, that the system is “very carefully managing the supplies that we have and what we need, according to guidelines outlined by the CDC. We are also educating our clinical employees on CDC guidelines for reuse and extended use of certain pieces of PPE. In addition, we have updated our algorithms that designate which clinical employees require PPE that offers the maximum protection and which clinical employees can safely perform their roles with a different form of PPE that does not require the maximum protection. These policies will enable us to extend our supply of these critical items that protect our healthcare providers so they can continue caring for those in our communities statewide.’’
The search for these supplies has drawn community and business support.
In Atlanta, Emory Healthcare has opened a drive-through donation site, located on Clifton Road, for personal protective equipment and supplies for front-line health care workers. Emory medical students are collecting PPE for Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta. And Gov. Brian Kemp has asked businesses to help provide, produce, distribute or store critical medical items the state needs to fight the spread of the virus.
“It is a challenge everywhere,’’ Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital, told reporters Friday. “It is challenging every day.’’
Some hospital systems have created new procedures to decontaminate N95s. Duke Health research and clinical teams have developed a way to use existing vaporized hydrogen peroxide methods to decontaminate the masks so they can be reused.
The American Nurses Association recently joined other medical organizations calling for more PPE to lessen potential staff shortages caused by illness and quarantines.
The president of the Georgia Nurses Association, Richard Lamphier, said in an organization communique that on Thursday, “we lost our first colleague as a result of infection of COVID-19.’’
“Today it is with heavy hearts that we heard of the first Georgia nurse to pass away from COVID-19 in the line of duty. I would like to ask every nurse and citizen of Georgia to please take a moment to recognize our fallen colleague,” said Lamphier on Friday.
Lisa Eichelberger, an RN and dean of the College of Health at Clayton State University, said Sunday that a group of Georgia nursing organizations are working on legislation to fund death benefits for nurses and their dependents and psychological counseling benefits.
“Nurses are currently facing major challenges on multiple fronts,” Eichelberger said. “They are struggling emotionally and physically as they fight this pandemic. They must watch and care for their co-workers who are becoming ill and dying. They are fearful they may become ill or endanger their family. All in addition to the overwhelming stress of caring for so many sick patients.
“Many front line health professionals will suffer post -traumatic stress disorder as a result of what they are experiencing now, and we must fund their after-care.’’