'We're preparing for a hurricane:' NC hospitals at precipice as COVID-19 slams capacity

CLAYTON, N.C. (WTVD) -- Health administrators and physicians across North Carolina on Tuesday warned that hospitals are on the precipice of exceeding capacity as the holiday surge of COVID-19 pummels the state.

"The issue is staffing," Dr. Rodney McCaskill, Chief Medical Officer at UNC Hospital in Clayton, told ABC11. "There are not enough nurses or respiratory therapists for beds. The patients coming in are much sicker than what we saw before COVID, and COVID illness in elderly is particularly harsh."

According to McCaskill, UNC canceled all elective surgeries at both its locations in Johnston County.

"You lose some nurses because they have to go home and take care of kids because they're not in school," he said. "We've lost some nurses because they're traveling or gone to big hospitals to make more money."

Hospitals, moreover, can't lower standards to speed up the onboarding process to hire new nurses.

"They're going to need to know how to run IVs, administer medications, if they're in the ICU they'll need experience with ventilators and sedation," McCaskill said. "There's a lot of training involved to get nurses to appropriately take care of the patient."

In Fayetteville, Cape Fear Valley Medical Center physicians are also sounding the alarm.

"The amount of community spread right now, we don't know," CPVMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Sam Fleishman told ABC11. "We're preparing for a hurricane as far as disaster planning. This is not war and I'm not in the military, but when you get in a situation like that, you have to do what you have to. You have to expand nursing ratios. You have to get EMTs and triage and provide the best care if you can."

The I-Team gathered the following data about daily capacity averages at Triangle hospitals and health centers:

For the week of 12/18-12/24:
Duke University Hospital
  • 741 adult beds total (down 10 from the previous week)
  • 649 adult beds occupied (88%, down from 97% the previous week)
  • 64 adult patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 (down 9 from the previous week)


UNC (Chapel Hill campus):
  • 728 adult beds total (same as the previous week)
  • 589 adult beds occupied (81%, down from 87% the previous week)
  • 71 adult patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 (up 12 from the previous week)


Cape Fear:
  • 574 adult beds total (up from the previous week 9)
  • 446 adult beds occupied (78%, down from 84% the previous week)
  • 62 adult patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 (up 2 from the previous week)


Johnston Health (Smithfield, no data for Clayton):
  • 177 adult beds total (same as the previous week)
  • 128 adult beds occupied (72%, up from 71% the previous week)
  • 48 adult patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 (up 4 from the previous week)
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