U-R update

ATLANTA (AP) — One of the nation's largest convention centers will reopen on Monday with "surge beds" to treat COVID-19 patients as critical care units across Georgia remain nearly full, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Friday.

The Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta will begin receiving patients Monday with 60 beds initially and increase to 120 beds if needed, the Republican governor said.

"These additional hospital beds will provide relief to surrounding healthcare facilities while providing top notch care for patients," Kemp said in a statement.

Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said the facility would be able to take care of sicker patients than when 200 beds were initially set up in part of the mammoth convention center in April and then later dismantled after caring for only a handful of recovering patients who needed low levels of care. New capabilities will include administering oxygen and medication drips to patients. Hall also said staffing will "reflect the level of need for patients that we are seeing."

The state's remaining 80-bed temporary facility at Milledgeville will not open for now, Hall said. Georgia has also deployed smaller pods to hospitals in Rome, Gainesville, Macon and Albany.

Reopening the convention center comes as Georgia hospitals have been voicing concerns about bed space with the surge of cases.

The 3,200 people in hospitals on Thursday was a record since the pandemic began, and critical care beds statewide are 87% full. Two of the state's smaller hospital regions — one around Athens and one in east central Georgia that includes Vidalia and Dublin — each reported one critical care bed available on Wednesday.

"We thought we were busy back in March and April. We thought that 10 patients was a whole lot of patients that had COVID," Don Avery, president of Fairview Park Hospital in Dublin, told WABE-FM. "The reality is we would love to be back (there) again, where we had eight or 10 patients."

The hospital's 16-bed intensive care unit has been full for most of the last 30 days, forcing hospital officials to seek to transfer patients to hospitals that can be hours away.

"We have looked over the past couple of days — what are our options to transfer patients to Macon, to Savannah, even Augusta," Avery said. "We have had a couple opportunities, but they are very, very limited in terms of bed availability."

Deaths and new confirmed cases of the respiratory illness remain at high levels in Georgia. Georgia's confirmed death toll rose to 3,671 Thursday, and the 14-day average of deaths rose to a record 41.

Although symptoms of COVID-19 are often mild and most people recover, some worsen and die.

Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta will oversee the beds at the Georgia World Congress Center, Kemp said. The safety-net public hospital is also expanding an existing effort to coordinate hospital bed space from metro Atlanta to statewide.

The state is paying Grady $1.2 million to create a round-the-clock website and call center to monitor hospital bed availability and help transfer patients to hospitals that can provide appropriate care. The state Department of Public Health will oversee Grady's work.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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