RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Wake County hospital doctors and chief medical officers gathered for a rare, combined news conference on Wednesday to discuss the debilitating effect the current COVID-19 surge, made worse by the Delta variant, is having on hospitals in the region.
"It's hard not to be a little disappointed at this point with our current position," said Dr. Timothy Plonk, Emergency Department Medical Director at Duke Raleigh Hospital. "Just as we felt like there was some light at the end of the tunnel, it seems we are thrust back into another wave of this pandemic."
The medical professionals all spoke on the shortage of hospital beds, the mental health of patients and staffing issues within the hospitals.
"Our patients are a little sicker, oftentimes very sick. And our staff is working harder. And our lobbies are full," said Plonk. "Our wait times are higher than they've ever been at Duke Raleigh."
He added that the rapid rate of growth of the Triangle is resulting in new patients for doctors to care for.
Many of the doctors on the virtual news conference encouraged anyone with illnesses to find the best care for themselves early and to explore options like their primary care provider or an urgent care facility before heading to an emergency department, if possible.
"The ED (Emergency Department) is open 24/7," Plonk said. "We see people for all kinds of things and all kinds of reasons and we're happy to do so. That's why we're here. There are other options though. And I think it's important to familiarize yourself, as a community member, with those options."
Plonk noted that COVID-19 is not the only thing crowding hospitals. He said people who have chronic conditions who have not been able to care for themselves like they had been pre-pandemic are also part of the admitted patients.
"We're seeing folks who lost their job, lost their insurance, who have had changes in their family situation. Who maybe have lost folks in their family who may have been primary caregivers or had changes to their primary care," he said. "All of these things have created gaps in people's healthcare that would otherwise keep them healthy."
UNC REX's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Linda Butler said the hospital is caring for more patients with less staff.
As of Wednesday, she said, the hospital had more than 500 patients. It's a 439-bed hospital but she said there were 520 patients. She added that the ICU beds are also full.
"Part of our high patient census is due to some difficulty really transferring out and discharging our patients," she said. "There's a lack of skilled nursing availability, not just in Wake County but throughout the state. We have difficulty finding placement for our geriatric dementia patients. Assisted livings are challenged with their behavior so they bring them to our emergency department and we end up caring for them in the hospital."
And, as hospitals have experienced across the country, REX is dealing with staffing issues, she said.
"There's a concern that even having a vaccine mandate at the end of September will have some staff choose to leave healthcare because they don't want to get vaccinated," Butler said. "But we know vaccinating is the right approach for our patients and our workforce and our community."
As for the workers who have been showing up every day and serving the community: "They are exhausted," she said.
Kayla Turner, 23, is one of 60 seniors at Wake Technical Community College graduating with a degree in nursing later this year.
"It has been scary to be honest but at same time the faulty has prepared us for this time, so we are very honest with each other and they tell us this a time like no other. But there's procedures and protocols that we have to follow to keep everybody safe," she said.
EMS has been affected, too.
"I believe last month or even this month EMS had to wait for a couple of hours for a space to open up to leave a patient and EMS has never had to wait in our ED (emergency department) before. So that just speaks to the volume challenges that we have," Butler said.
Dr. Seth Brody, Chief Physician Executive for WakeMed Health & Hospitals, commented on how the Delta variant specifically is making things worse.
"It's impacting healthier and younger patients. So that's one of the biggest differences that we're all seeing," he said.
"One of the comments I hear from our ICU doctors is ... they'll say these are people that should only be in the hospital because they fell off a skateboard. That's one of the comments that always strikes me. You do not expect them to be in there and then being intubated for COVID."
Brody added to what Plonk was saying about chronic care issues being delayed, saying that is leading to longer hospital stays for those non-COVID patients.
And as for those ill with COVID-19: "They are very sick."
"We will have as many as 10 or 12 patients a day transfer from our medical beds into our ICUs," he said. "That's on top of the emergency department admissions."
He also said that the children's hospital is full.
Even though the hospital had zero RSV cases in January, when the virus is usually surging, there have been 180 positive cases in August alone. On top of that, COVID-19 cases in children younger than 18 have doubled, he said.
"With schools reopening, that's obviously concerning," Brody said.
In addition to encouraging people to see their primary care physicians, with the emergency departments filling up, WakeMed is also urging people to consider telemedicine and virtual care.
With the pandemic in full swing once again, Dr. Micah Krempasky, Chief Medical Officer at WakeMed Behavioral Health, said there's been a 40 percent increase of people experiencing depression and anxiety as compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
Still, even though hospitals are filling up, Krempasky said it's important not to delay care.
"The longer you delay in that, the worse the symptoms are going to get," she said.
That means it's important to know what resources are available and to seek help early.