North Carolina could run out of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in 6 weeks if trends continue, report says

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- If current COVID-19 trends continue in the state of North Carolina, hospitals could run out of beds for treating patients in six weeks if the current rate of increase for hospitalizations continues, new research from UNC and Duke Health doctors shows.

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According to the report published on Tuesday, a faster rate of increase would mean hitting capacity in 4 weeks and a slower growth rate would mean hitting capacity in 12 weeks.

As of December 5, there were 20,784 inpatient hospital beds reported to be staffed statewide, the report says. Of those, 14,089 were occupied by non-COVID-19 patients, 2,198 were occupied by COVID-19 patients, and 4,497 beds were reported to be available for new patient admissions.

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Should the current trend continue, the report found that North Carolina currently has about a six-week runway of available hospital beds. "Runway" is the amount of time (measured in weeks) until hospitals may reach or exceed their inpatient or intensive care unit (ICU) capacity.

The research -- done by the UNC Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research and the Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy -- also found that some regions are in better shape than others.

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Asheville is experiencing a larger hospitalization growth rate and Charlotte has tighter capacities. Meanwhile, Wilmington is in better shape.

The report also noted that, even if there is adequate bed capacity, the beds have to be staffed by healthy doctors and nurses.

"Moreover, shifting available personnel from one region to another is an infeasible strategy if all regions face workforce shortages at the same time," the report says.

The research notes that there are ways to make more beds available -- including cancelling or modifying elective procedures and adjusting thresholds for admitting or discharging patients. However, it says, the best way to ensure capacity is to reduce the number of people needing to be hospitalized for COVID-19 by slowing the spread of the virus.

In a statement, UNC Health said it remains "cautiously optimistic" about its capacity and staffing as the pandemic goes on.

"Since earlier this year, all of our hospitals have developed contingency plans for adding extra space if our volumes increase." said UNC Health in the statement. "We are monitoring changes in the volume of patients and acuity (severity of illness), and adjusting staffing appropriately. We are increasingly worried about our staffing levels, as more co-workers contract COVID in the community or are required to go out on isolation because they've been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID. As the state's leading health system, UNC Health leaders and clinicians at our hospitals frequently discuss best practices, share resources and collaborate to determine the best ways to respond to a wide range of situations. At this time, UNC Health hospitals are caring for 300 COVID patients, the highest total since the pandemic began. We expect that number will continue to increase. We want to encourage everyone in North Carolina to take all recommended prevention measures to combat this pandemic, including wearing masks and practicing social distancing."
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