Covid-driven hospital surge ‘not a sustainable situation’ in Western Pa., expert says
Hospitals across Western Pennsylvania are operating at or near capacity, a situation mirrored across the state and country as covid-19 cases spike — particularly among people who are unvaccinated.
All UPMC facilities — including those in New York and Maryland — are operating at or over capacity, said Susan Manko, a spokeswoman, though she stressed that all locations are open and care is available.
Manko said UPMC is treating around 840 covid patients across all facilities — the inpatient numbers peaked at 1,250 in December 2020.
She said 75% of covid inpatients at UPMC hospitals are not vaccinated and the 25% who are “are either immunocompromised or elderly.”
“So, we’re almost, but not quite, where we were last December as far as number of covid inpatients,” Manko said. “But this is a different challenge now, because now, our high number of covid patients is coinciding with the fact that the demand for health care services has grown dramatically over the last few months for both covid and non-covid care.”
At Excela in Westmoreland County, hospital officials are shifting or canceling non-emergency surgeries to “decompress our usage of specialized beds such as those in our ICUs,” said hospital spokesman Tom Chakurda.
Though the health system did not provide specific numbers, Chakurda said the hospital is nearing the same numbers they saw during last winter’s surge.
Among Allegheny Health Network facilities, officials are facing similarly high patient volumes.
Spokeswoman Candace Herrington said the numbers change daily. AHN has a number of locations where patients can be moved if some facilities are at capacity.
At UPMC, Manko acknowledged that emergency room wait times are longer than in the past – an issue emergency departments across the country are facing as well. Emergency room physicians and nurses use a triage process to prioritize patients who are most in need when space is available.
She noted that the emergency room is not the place to get a covid-19 test, nor is it the place for treatment of less severe symptoms or illness. Doing so, she said, creates even more of a backup and can delay care for those with higher priority medical needs.
“The nationwide staffing shortage makes the situation even more challenging,” Manko said. “Seasonal flu cases are rapidly climbing, signaling that our busy emergency departments may become even more crowded by the coinciding contagions.”
The state Department of Health on Thursday reported more than 5,000 cases of the flu since the start of the season, as well as two flu-related deaths. More than 500 of those flu cases have been in Allegheny County.
“Flu cases are increasing significantly as we had an over 2,000 case increase in just one week,” Acting state Secretary of Health Alison Beam said.
Infectious disease expert and critical care physician Dr. Amesh Adalja said the surge among hospitals should be cause for concern.
“This is not a sustainable situation,” he said. “It’s going to be important for hospitals to practice load balancing and act like a health care coalition in order to avoid any one hospital getting completely crushed.”
The high number of hospital beds in use is not unique to Southwestern Pennsylvania. According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 86% of the state’s inpatient hospital beds are in use.
According to the state Department of Health dashboard, about 13.5% of the state’s adult ICU beds are available, along with 9.7% of medical/surgical beds, 10% of pediatric ICU beds and 19% of pediatric medical beds.
As of mid-afternoon Thursday, 4,404 people across the state were hospitalized with covid-19, and 923 were in an intensive-care unit. About 541 were on ventilators. In Allegheny County, there were 520 hospitalized covid patients, 143 of whom were in intensive care. Seventy-five were on ventilators.
In Westmoreland County, there were 116 people hospitalized with the virus, 25 of whom where in intensive care and sixteen were on ventilators. About 30% of adult ICU beds were available, along with 12% of medical-surgical beds.
The Associated Press on Thursday reported that Geisinger – one of the state’s largest health systems – had run out of beds and was running at 110% capacity across its nine hospitals.
At Geisinger hospitals, the latest coronavirus surge means ambulances are backed up, ER doctors have resorted to making rounds in waiting rooms to diagnose patients with perforated bowels and other serious ailments, and covid-19 patients are getting oxygen in crowded hallways, said Geisinger’s Dr. Essie Reed.
“We’re almost two years into this, and it still feels like every day is a crisis when we go to work,” Reed, an emergency physician at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre and Geisinger’s director of EMS, told the Associated Press. “It’s probably worse than it was last year.”