A general view of the pedestrian bridge at the Atlanta Medical Center on Friday, September 30, 2022. Wellstar has closed its doors on November 1, 2022. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

The ability to anticipate emergent situations lies at the center of successful emergency care.  As physicians working in one of the busiest emergency departments on the east coast, we clock in considering what day of the week it is and what patient complaints we are likely to see. For instance, on a rainy weekend night in Atlanta, we anticipate a spike in motor vehicle accidents. When we hear overhead calls about critically ill patients racing down 85 in an ambulance heading to our resuscitation bays, we anticipate what resources we will need to treat them and try to have those supplies in the room before the patient arrives. These days, many of us are anticipating what the closing of Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center (AMC) will mean for our patients and our hospitals. Among the expected sequelae: longer emergency department wait times, diminished in-patient floor and ICU bed availability, and the most troubling as we move into flu and covid season – worse health outcomes for an already disenfranchised urban Atlanta population. 

Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms prepares to get vaccinated by Dr. Carlos del Rio, MD at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 in Atlanta. Del Rio is chair of the Department of Global Health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University’s School of Medicine. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

Along with last month’s introduction of new omicron boosters for people 12-18 years and older across the country, the US Department of Health and Human Services relaunched the “We Can Do This” campaign to encourage uptake. This messaging is particularly important for Georgians as the state continues to do poorly when it comes to vaccine uptake. Out of the 50 states and District of Columbia, Georgia ranks 44th and 47th in terms of percentage of population fully vaccinated and percentage of population having received an additional dose or booster. As physicians we ourselves are vaccinated and continue to advocate for our patients to get vaccinated because the vaccines have been proven to be safe and the data undeniably shows that they work. We’ve called on individuals who do not think they personally need the vaccine to get vaccinated to help protect the young, elderly, immunocompromised and other vulnerable people around them. For those still hesitant, know that for the first time we have a booster that matches the circulating COVID variant in the United States. That means that although the previous vaccines and boosters have done an incredible job in preventing severe infections, hospitalizations, and death in those that are vaccinated – this booster may be even more effective at saving lives.

Georgia Governor Brian P. Kemp speaks during a press conference regarding the expansion of COVID-19 vaccination requirements inside the State Capitol on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

For those still requiring an additional nudge, know that if you happen to become ill with COVID this Fall, AMC’s closing may mean that healthcare may not be available in the exact instance that you need it. Yes, the state has allotted Grady Health System $130 million for a 200-bed hospital expansion and other hospitals are taking measures including the utilization of temporary medical units to brace for AMC’s closing, but many of these efforts will take time to be implemented and like any plan will likely come with unexpected hiccups of their own. Atlantans who think that these resources will be available at the exact moment they need it, may need to anticipate the real possibility of scarcity this fall and winter. 

However, all hope is not lost, and our community safety net has long proved itself to be resilient. Although “We Can Do This” is the name of the COVID campaign, it also speaks to a culture of empowerment and prevention that we must remember to embrace when at all possible. This means individuals getting omicron boosters to protect themselves and others, but also getting flu shots, wearing seat belts when in a vehicle, taking their medications even when they feel well, voting for candidates and measures that make healthcare a priority, and embracing other health positive behaviors. This also means employers and companies creating safe working conditions and providing opportunities for employees to schedule and attend primary care and mental health visits during workdays/hours. Each of these individual and collective actions come with their own barriers and may not be the most convenient, but they are real, tangible changes that we can implement daily or in the near future. These days as we go into work, we see and hear citizens and healthcare providers each doing their part. Hence, although the challenge before us remains ominous, we anticipate that when working as a community, we truly can do this.