'It puts a strain on every resource': Doctors worry about surge in hospitalizations

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- NCDHHS reported that the state's COVID-19 metrics are continuing to worsen, as the state topped 3,000 hospitalizations for the first time since January, a number that has nearly doubled in the past two weeks.

The increasing hospitalizations follow a surge in cases, with the state reporting more than 7,000 new daily cases for the first time since early February, sparking concerns that already-strained healthcare systems may need to brace for a difficult stretch.

"It puts a strain on every resource that we have. Beds in the hospital are scarce. Patients are waiting longer in the emergency department to get up to a bed in the hospital. Patients that are coming to see us are waiting longer in the waiting room to get back to be seen in an appropriate care area," said Dr. Branson Page, who works in WakeMed's Emergency Medicine Department.

Compared to January, WakeMed is seeing much younger patients. During that surge, the average patient was in their 70's; today, the average age is closer to 50, with many younger than that. Of the 140 hospitalized COVID-19 patients at WakeMed, about 30% require ICU care. More than 90% of hospitalized patients at WakeMed are unvaccinated, a common trend across hospitals.

The more transmissible Delta variant, combined with the return of large-scale events and less implementation of safety protocols, has helped drive the surge, which is particularly affecting areas of the country with low vaccination rates.

READ MORE: Monoclonal antibodies widely available in N.C. for many testing positive for COVID19

Doctors stress that the influx of COVID-19 patients to hospitals has a widespread effect.

"We're doing our best to stretch and take care of everyone. We've also decreased our elective procedures, and some of them are even time-sensitive, to limit the number of in-patient beds," said Dr. Linda Butler, the Vice President of Medical Affairs and Chief Medical Officer at UNC Rex Healthcare.

"So you have the heart attack patient that needs to see the cardiologist, but if there's no open bed spaces, then the cardiologist won't be available to see that patient. And they're going to be treated at the facility that they're at," added Dr. Ahbi Mehrotra, the Vice Chair of Operations at UNC Health's Department of Emergency of Medicine.

Mehrotra is referring to the common practice of larger hospitals such as UNC and Duke accepting patients from smaller facilities and clinics, something that has become increasingly difficult to do.

"Unfortunately we have a long waiting list of patients every single day of patients at outside hospitals who would need and would like Duke Care, and we do our very best to get as many of them in as possible. But that list grows longer every week, and we are not able to accommodate everybody who is able to come in," said Dr. Lisa Pickett, the Chief Medical Officer at Duke University Hospital.

NCDHHS reports there are 729 patients statewide in ICUs, representing a 20% increase from last week.

As hospitalizations and wait times increase, it is important to consider if you should seek emergency care of if you could be treated by a primary care provider or at urgent care. WakeMed has this table, listing conditions such as bronchitis, migraines, ear infection and nausea that a PCP can assist with. Urgent Care encompasses many of the ailments associated with a PCP, in addition to minor bone fractures and insect and animal bites.

If you are having difficulty breathing, having a severe allergic reaction, showing symptoms of a stroke or seizure, however, you should seek emergency care at a hospital immediately.

Health officials continue to highlight the importance of getting vaccinated as soon as possible, and practicing the 3 Ws.

"We all want to get back to a sense of normal. But we're not there yet. We've still got a ways to go," Page said.
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