RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Hospitalizations from coronavirus are at a new high this week in Virginia. Meanwhile, one model projects some regions could run out of bed space by January if the current growth rate continues.
On Thursday, Virginia Department of Health data put hospitalizations statewide at 1,853, a grim figure representing a gradual increase of more than 800 inpatient admissions over the last month. The total also surpasses previous peaks, including the initial wave last spring that prompted Gov. Ralph Northam’s Administration to begin planning for field hospitals.
“Rights are important but we need to emphasize responsibility and, in some part of the state, if you get this virus and need to go to the hospital there is not a bed for you near your home,” Northam said during his press conference on Wednesday.
Southwest Virginia surge continues
At least for now, Gov. Northam is not reinstating a suspension on non-emergency surgeries statewide. Yet Ballad Health–the only hospital system serving much of Southwest Virginia– is doing so on its own to meet the needs of a growing number of patients.
On Thursday, Ballad had one mobile morgue on standby as the health system worked to secure a second one.
“That’s an unsightly thing for people to see and a very uncomfortable thing to talk about, but the reality is we don’t have the capacity for what we anticipate we will need. So we need to get some additional capacity for the storage of bodies,” Ballad CEO Alan Levine told reporters earlier this week.
“No system would put forth those efforts if it wasn’t dire,” echoed Emily Boucher, a registered nurse in the Critical Care Unit at Johnston Memorial Hospital in Abingdon, Va.
In an interview with 8News, Bloucher begged Virginians to follow coronavirus guidelines.
“There are people that didn’t think it was that big of a deal and then you’re seeing multiple people in families die from COVID or be severely ill and disabled with long-term consequences.” Bloucher said. “To see somebody pass on completely alone with just a stranger in the room with them is incredibly difficult…and it happens again and again and again every week.”
How the state is responding
Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Daniel Carey said the state isn’t providing support through alternative cares sites at this point because Ballad’s biggest problem isn’t a lack of beds. Rather, it’s a shortage of staff–exacerbated by coronavirus exposures forcing nurses into quarantine.
In response, Carey said the state is hoping to tap members of the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps to fill in, though only a handful of volunteers are qualified to work in a hospital setting. He said they’re also looking at removing possible regulatory barriers so that pre-hospital staff like paramedics can help out.
“But there is a cost to that obviously because we’re hearing from the pre-hospital folks that they are running into shortages as well,” Carey said.
Further complicating matters is the fact that case increases are much more widespread than they were in the spring, when healthcare provides from across the country flocked to New York to help care for patients.
Asked if other hospital systems have an imminent need for staffing support, Carey said, “No one is close to where Ballad is right now in terms of needing to implement those procedures but it is a cautionary tale.”
Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association Communications Vice President Julian Walker said 5 of 6 total regions in the Commonwealth being monitored for bed capacity remain at the lowest alert level, despite record-setting hospitalizations statewide.
“The difference is that the increase in patients during this current wave has been more gradual than spikes that we saw in previous waves,” Walker said. “There are thousands of hospital beds available throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. Our members have taken steps since the earliest days of this pandemic to both free up bed space and add bed space.”
Model warns the worst is yet to come
University of Virginia Biocomplexity Institute Associate Researcher Bryan Lewis said a shortage of beds could come in the near future, especially heading into winter holidays that he fears will come with increased travel and indoor gatherings.
Lewis is part of a team that provides weekly forecasting updates to the Virginia Department of Health to help inform policy decisions.
He said their state-specific model tracking bed capacity is based on the estimate that hospitals can dedicate around 40 percent of total beds to COVID-19 patients in surge conditions before additional measures, such as on-site tents, would be needed for triage.
Lewis said, if hospitalizations continue to grow at this rate, several regions of the state could be in that position by early to mid-January.
“This is the most serious situation we have been in. We need to come together as Americans and Virginians to take control of this transmission and not let it drive us into the ground and send a lot of people to a grave they don’t need to go to.”