As the Delta variant causes a surge in cases, how prepared are North Carolina hospitals?

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The first surge in COVID-19 might have been unprecedented but don't brush off the next one as unavoidable.

As the Delta variant continues to permeate, hospitals and health systems in North Carolina are keenly aware of the potential for an influx of patients -- predominantly unvaccinated -- not seen since after Christmas.

"Our volumes are not as high in terms of COVID hospitalizations as they were in the early part of the year, but we see them fairly rapidly increasing and so that's worrisome to us," Duke Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lisa Pickett, also a trauma and critical care physician, said. "The good news is that we have PPE overall and our team members are vaccinated, or at least have the opportunity to be vaccinated and we're going to require that here at Duke very soon."

Likewise at UNC Health, administrators expressed confidence in their ability to protect doctors and nurses, while also providing protection to patients.

"We're much more prepared in how to treat COVID-19 and we have many more tools in managing those patients," Dr. Linda Butler, Chief Medical Officer at UNC Health, said. "We do have some monoclonal antibodies that we can administer in a clinic setting to try and prevent infection, and of course we've got vaccination, which is our most powerful tool. We're really hoping that the most vulnerable patients will have already been immunized and a majority of our healthcare workers are immunized."

In March 2020, The ABC11 I-Team analyzed data from the North Carolina Healthcare Association as well as the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

At the time, the state's 17 hospital systems offered 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.

Those numbers remain relatively unchanged, but capacity overall capacity currently exceeds 52%. By comparison, however, the January surge saw 76% of all hospital beds occupied, including 86% of ICU beds. Ventilators are also in good supply.

No matter the amount of space, however, patient care also relies heavily on adequate staffing, and many industry analysts are expressing concern about the burnout of health care professionals.

"Our most valuable asset is our people," Pickett said. "If we don't have enough nurses and respiratory therapists and other essential team members, we can't open new beds to care for patients."
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