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Unchecked, COVID-19 Could Overwhelm NC Hospitals

The COVID-19 triage tent next to the UNC Rex Hospital emergency department.
Jason deBruyn

Hospitals across North Carolina don't have a large amount of excess capacity to handle what they expect will be an onslaught of COVID-19 patients in the coming few weeks.

Even as they postpone elective surgeries, set up outdoor triage tents, and ramp up staffing levels, there's a concern that coronavirus patients will overwhelm the health care system.

"On average, we are at 80% to 90% capacity this time of year anyway," said Cody Hand, vice president of communications for the North Carolina Healthcare Association, which represents more than 130 North Carolina hospital and health systems. "We're at tail end of a pretty bad flu season, so we still have those patients."

Hospitals everywhere have been ramping up to try to meet demand, and donations of supplies have rolled in. But even so, there's a fear that it won't be enough. That's why the healthcare association asked Governor Roy Cooper to mandate a shelter in place order. That would help to stop any further spread of the virus.

"(Our hospitals will need) more space, more beds, more doctors, more nurses. More of the things we're already struggling to find on a regular day," Hand said. "And that's why it's important for us to make sure that people remain as healthy as possible."

The Associated Press pulled data from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to analyze average annual capacity at hospitals across the nation. WUNC analyzed the data for hospitals in North Carolina to build the graphic below. The gray bar represents average occupancy for an entire year, with the remaining blue part the average available capacity. Hand pointed out that occupancy currently is likely to be even higher because of the time of year. Use the pull down box to select any city to find more local data.

The lack of intensive care beds could be especially troubling. Across North Carolina, there are 15 counties with no ICU beds, in addition to 20 counties without a hospital at all, according to data published by Kaiser Health News. In the same way that a cluster of COVID-19 patients all at one time could overwhelm the health care system, a geographic cluster could do the same to a hospital in that area.

That's why experts say it's so important to maintain safe social distancing to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

"If we do a shelter in place now before it is crucial, we feel like we can get ahead of that and not have to get to the situation where we make those tough calls," said Hand.

Indeed, there has still not been a coronavirus-related death reported in North Carolina, and Hand says there's still time in this state to prevent the worst case scenario. But those days are running out, he said.

"Untreated and unaddressed, this pandemic will not go away," he said. "And it will continue wreaking havoc on the economy as well as on our human lives."

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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