COVID-19 Hospitalizations Are Surging
A nurse pulls out a testing swab at mega drive-thru site at El Paso Community College Valle Verde campus on July 21, 2020 in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by Cengiz Yar/Getty Images)

At least 17 states recorded more hospitalizations for the virus on a day in the past week than on any other day during the pandemic, according to a COURIER analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project. 

More than seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, America’s medical system is nearing a breaking point once again. As the number of COVID-19 cases surge, some hospitals are on the verge of rationing care while field hospitals are being propped up in numerous states. 

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased by more than 30% over the past month. As of Sunday evening, there were nearly 42,000 Americans hospitalized because of the virus, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

While those numbers remain far below the record set in April, when nearly 60,000 Americans were hospitalized, the current surge is not centered in big cities like New York City and Seattle, but in more sparsely populated and rural communities, where hospitals are few and far between, lack the same resources as larger medical centers, and face staffing shortages.

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If the number of hospitalizations continues to increase—which is likely given the nation’s explosive rise in cases over the past two weeks—the consequences could be devastating. Communities could experience their own version of the horror that befell New York City in March and April, when body bags piled up in hallways and the city was forced to use refrigerator trucks as makeshift morgues. 

While those exact scenes are unlikely to play out in more remote areas, things are on pace to get very, very grim. In Utah, hospitals are only a week or two away from having to ration care, according to Greg Bell, president of the Utah Hospital Association. Bell and hospital administrators sent Gov. Gary Herbert a letter last week, warning that they’d be forced to ration access to ICU beds in the coming weeks. They asked the governor to sign off on the criteria they’d use to determine which patients should get priority and be admitted, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

“We told him, ‘It looks like we’re going to have to request those be activated if this trend continues,’ and we see no reason why it won’t,” Bell told the Tribune. 

More than 300 patients are currently hospitalized with the virus in Utah, with 120 in the ICU, according to the state department of health. At least two Utah hospitals have already opened overflow ICUs this month, and the state could be forced to finally open a long-discussed field hospital in the city of Sandy, if hospitalizations continue to climb.

Utah is not alone in the crisis it’s facing. At least 17 states recorded more hospitalizations for the virus on a day in the past week than on any other day during the pandemic, according to a COURIER analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project. 

The surges are so severe that in Idaho, one hospital reached 99% capacity last week, while medical centers in Kansas City, Missouri, were recently forced to reject ambulances because they lacked space for patients. More than 85% of hospital beds are currently filled in North Dakota and Wisconsin, and several other states are seeing their trendlines increase in the wrong direction as well.

The surges are so severe that in Idaho, one hospital reached 99% capacity last week, while medical centers in Kansas City were recently forced to reject ambulances because they lacked space for patients.

Wisconsin is responding to its surge by opening a 530-bed field hospital in West Allis, just outside Milwaukee. Texas is also setting up an additional emergency care site in El Paso, where cases have risen dramatically in recent weeks. 

Other states could soon follow suit, but erecting additional facilities could stretch already-exhausted doctors and nurses, who have endured seven months of cases. In Utah, for example, hospitals are 20 to 30% understaffed, Bell said.

“Hundreds and hundreds of nurses are not able to work as they were [before] because of their own disease or infection in the family, or they’re moms and dads with school issues,” Bell told the Tribune. “Some are worn out, some are on leave because they’ve been doing this for seven months.”

Similar staffing shortages are occurring across the Midwest and Great Plains, as medical workers contract the virus and are unable to work.

The combination of staffing shortages and more hospitalized patients could create an untenable situation. How bad could things get? According to estimates from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, nearly 126,000 hospital beds will be needed to care for COVID-19 patients by January 2021, when the institute predicts the current wave will peak.

That would be more than double the number of patients hospitalized during the initial wave of cases in April.

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