There's little room for error when it comes to hospital capacity in North Carolina

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- North Carolina's hospitals could soon be overwhelmed by a surge in patients testing positive for the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

In Wake County specifically, current trends show that bed space would be critically low if just 1 percent of the county's population contracted the virus.

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"The reason we're trying to limit the amount of patients through social distancing is to make sure our doctors and nurses have adequate resources and time to rest up and prepare for the surge," Cody Hand, Vice President of the North Carolina Healthcare Association, said. "The physical facilities have to be able to accommodate the number of patients we have."

The ABC11 I-Team analyzed data from North Carolina Healthcare Association as well as the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

In total, the state's 17 hospital systems offer 21,444 operational beds, including 3,241 beds in intensive care units (ICU). In Wake County, WakeMed, DukeHealth and UNC Rex campuses offer a combined 1,607 beds, including just 205 ICU beds. At the present time, roughly 40% of beds are unoccupied for acute care, but only 18% in ICU.

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"We're in an unprecedented time," Hand said. "We have no less than 17 of our major systems collaborating together to make sure they know where capacity is."

Medical experts estimate a moderate COVID-19 infection rate in the U.S. could be 20 to 60 percent of people. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates 15 percent of those infected get seriously ill enough to be hospitalized.

Using far more conservative estimates, our data team analyzed the number of available hospital beds in every county in North Carolina and across the country and we found space will be a problem before infection rates reach levels experts warn is possible.

In Durham County, our analysis shows hospitals would have enough beds until about 3 percent of residents gets COVID-19.

Statewide, beds would run out if just 1.5 percent of people have the disease.

Beds, of course, are only part of the challenge for health care providers, not to mention the supply of gowns, masks, ventilators and other equipment. Expanding capacity cannot extend beyond what's safe and legal.

"You're looking at fire hazards with the oxygen equipment, you're looking at exposure hazards, filtration," Hand said. "Restroom facilities are a challenge, plumbing facilities are a challenge. Public water supply is always a challenge, especially in rural North Carolina. There's a lot of issues we're looking at that we have to take into consideration when we're looking at a crisis like this."
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