NC hospital ERs packed, COVID wards fill up with mostly unvaccinated patients

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Hospitals are not hotels, and no vacancies is not a good problem.

"We're feeling a little anxious," Dr. Lisa Pickett, Chief Medical Officer at Duke University Hospital, told ABC11. "As we predicted, after the Christmas holiday we have begun to see a pretty steep increase."

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 9,377 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, the highest number of new cases since September 11. While the percentage of positive tests dropped from yesterday's record high, it still remained high at 17.3% --the third highest recorded since the start of the pandemic.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also continues to rise again, topping 2,000 for the first time since mid-October with 2,122 people in the hospital statewide. Of those patients, 484 adults are in the ICU.

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

According to Pickett, emergency rooms at Duke Health's three hospitals saw a record 600-plus patients each of the last three days.

"And with the challenges of the holiday season, we appropriately have given some of our team members time off to be with their families. So already over the holidays our team is a little bit shorter intentionally. So having a peak at this point in time is very challenging," she said.

As Omicron continues to permeate through North Carolina communities, staffing again is emerging as a key issue for hospital systems because of the variant's increased transmissibility, which is infecting staffers and sending them home for a few days, even for mild symptoms.

"They still get COVID and they still have to be out because we don't want to spread COVID to our patients or their loved ones," Pickett added. "It's more than doctors and nurses, too. (COVID patients) require a lot more expertise and numbers of respiratory therapists. They need folks specially trained to clean their rooms, to bring them their trays of food when they eat, as well as our (physical therapy), (occupational therapy), speech, dietary. All of our specialties are devoted to those patients."

More challenges for rural hospitals

In Johnston County, UNC Health is reporting nearly a third of all available medical and surgical beds are occupied by COVID patients across its two community hospitals in Clayton and Smithfield.

Ruth Marler, the chief nurse, told ABC11 that the hospital staff is increasingly frustrated by the prominence of unvaccinated individuals in the hospital, especially in rural areas where space is already at a premium.

"Our numbers have just trickled up to 51% in Johnston County that have the vaccine, but we know 49% have chosen not to or for some reason have been unable to receive the vaccine," Marler said. "So when you think about that, about 1 in every 2 people out there, they're susceptible to COVID, and potentially, up to and including the loss of their life."

Marler, moreover, also lamented how many unvaccinated patients are eager to trust experimental treatments like monoclonal antibodies -- but not proven and effective vaccines.

Wait times in the ERs, meanwhile, have lengthened from an average of 60 minutes to more than 2.5 hours.

"The first line of saving lives in the vaccine," she said. "The patients we're holding today have diabetes out of control, or sepsis, or pneumonia, and do not have COVID. We don't have room for them to be admitted because we are taking those beds up with COVID patients."
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