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Wake Hospitals Hold Rare Joint Briefing To Highlight Lack Of Beds, Critical Staffing Levels

In this Aug. 20, 2021, file photo, two visitors peer into the room of a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Salem Hospital in Salem, Ore., as a nurse dons full protective gear before going into the room of another patient.
Andrew Selsky
In this Aug. 20, 2021, file photo, two visitors peer into the room of a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Salem Hospital in Salem, Ore., as a nurse dons full protective gear before going into the room of another patient.

Leaders from WakeMed, Duke Raleigh Hospital and UNC Rex Healthcare came together Wednesday to sound the alarm that their capacity has filled.

This lack of available beds is driven largely by a surge in unvaccinated patients with COVID-19. Wake County Emergency Management Services also participated in the public call.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 3,503 COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state, the most since January and a nearly ten-fold increase in the past month and a half alone.

The three hospitals are known to compete with one another for patients and resources. The rare joint briefing spoke to the urgency of the situation.

North Carolina saw a similar ten-fold increase in hospitalizations from April 2020 to January 2021, a ten-month period. Hospitals are now seeing that same increase in less than two months.

Dr. Linda Butler, chief medical officer at UNC REX Healthcare, said she has about 520 patients in her hospital on Wednesday and just 439 total available beds. She added that the hospital's ICU capacity is now full.

Butler said the public does not understand how critical the situation is across many of North Carolina's hospitals.

“Please get vaccinated so you do not end up a patient in one of our hospitals,” Butler said. “We don't want your business. We want you to be healthy.”

Contributing to the problem are the many patients who avoided care during the early days of the pandemic. Chronic conditions have worsened over the months, and hospitals are seeing patients with more severe cases. Now patients are having to stay in surgery longer and stay in recovery longer.

Representatives from Wake County Emergency Management say they are also witnessing a surge. The county's Emergency Medical Services Director Jose Cabañas said Wednesday that his department is getting more calls for help than ever before, with many cases of more than 400 people seeking assistance on a given day. That's up from pre-pandemic levels of about 300 daily calls.

"The experience that we're seeing in the community with over 10,000 calls a month is a complete new thing for us. We've never had that threshold before," Cabañas said.

In previous years for this time of year, the county would expect to see call volumes 20% lower. The reasons for the increase in calls are varied. Delayed care means people are sicker and have more heart attacks and strokes. The pandemic has also taken a toll on mental health which prompts some of the calls.

If trends continue, hospitals are concerned they will not be able to maintain sufficient staffing. Nurses, who are accustomed to higher workloads during certain periods like flu season, generally see a lull in the spring when they can book off vacation time. Without that lull, there is real concern that the entire health care system will be out of people to treat patients.

Dr. Seth Brody, the WakeMed chief physician executive, says treating COVID-19 patients takes a larger physical toll on nurses. Nurses may roll patients on their stomachs as part of COVID treatment. That is labor-intensive, especially for patients who are obese. Also, Brody says, it takes extra time to put on the proper protective gear.

"It's not your normal level of care. Even out of the ICU, it's not your normal level of care. That's the stressor," said Brody.

More than 2,000 intensive care unit beds are in use across North Carolina, while less than 300 are empty and staffed, according to state health department data. About 1,100 ICU beds are either unreported or unstaffed.

WUNC's Dave DeWitt contributed to this report.

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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