'Our beds are very full': Duke ICU running out of beds as COVID-19 numbers rise

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- As North Carolina reports the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations thus far in the pandemic, central NC hospitals are filling up fast.

Data from the US Department of Health and Human Services updated this week shows that COVID-19 is having a greater impact on the Triangle's hospitals.

During the week from December 4 to December 10, Duke University Hospital had an average of 63 adult patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 in inpatient beds each day, an increase of seven patients from the previous week. That number includes 24 patients in the ICU with COVID-19 on average each day, an increase of five patients from the week before.

On average, 97% of the hospital's 750 adult inpatient beds were occupied each day. And according to the data, every one of Duke University Hospital's 115 intensive care unit beds were full on average each day. Dr. Lisa Pickett, the hospital's chief medical officer, said her team meets every day to discuss where and how patients need the most attention.

"Our beds are very full," Pickett said. "We do maintain several COVID beds open, or at least one at any given time, because COVID patient care is so specific that if someone is decompensating, we need to move them very rapidly into the safest possible location for them to receive higher level of critical care so we do tend to try to keep a moving bed space for those patients. And just about as soon as we empty the room out, another patient is waiting to come in, and that's especially true today."

In total, 39 confirmed COVID-19 patients were admitted to Duke University Hospital in the last week. While that may not seem like much, Pickett said the influx of patients adds stress to what is already a busy time of year for hospitals.

"We always understand that our ICUs are going to be particularly full in the wintertime," Pickett said. "We have some COVID patients that remain in our intensive care unit literally weeks and months. And so once you have those patients filling those beds for that long period of time, it leaves fewer beds for other people to come into."

Duke University Hospital is not alone. At the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill, 84% of the hospital's 728 adult inpatient beds were occupied on average each day last week, compared to 81% the week before. The hospital had an average of 55 adult patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 each day, including 25 patients in the intensive care unit. And while 26 ICU beds were available on average each day in the previous week, just 21 were open each day last week.

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At WakeMed in Raleigh, 88% of the hospitals 568 adult inpatient beds were occupied on average each day last week, with 81 adult patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. Fortunately, the number of ICU beds occupied on average each day decreased, as did the number of COVID-19 patients in the ICU. Still, 37% of all emergency room visits to WakeMed were for COVID-like symptoms--a sign that the disease is spreading rapidly in the community.

In the Sandhills, 86% of the inpatient beds at Cape Fear Valley Hospital were occupied on average each day last week, with 40 adult confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients. Just two staffed ICU beds were available each day on average, with eight COVID-19 patients in the ICU each day. A total of 31 COVID-19 patients were admitted to the hospital last week, an increase of eight patients from the previous week.

As beds fill up, the question becomes how to create more hospital capacity so that every person who needs help can get a bed. Pickett said she and other health leaders have several options in front of them.

"We have backup plans upon backup plans," Pickett said. "We have ability to flex into new rooms for covid should we need that. We can revert back to putting up a tent for respiratory care patients should we need that."

However, Pickett said, unlike the spring, cancelling elective procedures may not be an option.

"Earlier in the spring we did delay some cases, but in many cases, we found that people's health got worse," Pickett said. "We want to take care of people's needs because we understand that those medical problems are not going away, in fact, they get worse if they get delayed."

And she added that while she has the ability to open additional parts of the hospital and add beds, like other hospitals around the state, staffing is an issue.

"Our limitation right now is the ability to rapidly hire in this time," Pickett said. "Our team members are our best commodity and they are worth their weight in gold."

Still, she said no one should worry about not having a bed at Duke University Hospital. "If you need help, call for help. Come to our emergency room. We will take care of you."

While Pickett said the arrival of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine was a welcome sight this week, she added that the public will need to continue to wash hands, wear a mask and stay physically distant from others until enough people are vaccinated.

"And if you see a health care worker, give them a virtual hug," Pickett added with a laugh.

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