Hospitals Strain Under the Weight of Covid, Flu and Other Infections

As COVID-19 cases soar in the commonwealth and hospitalizations reach their highest peak since last winter, hospitals are struggling to treat patients coming in with ailments not related to the pandemic.

DonWith new COVID-19 variants compounding what experts say could be a relentless flu season, area hospitals are once again feeling the heat.

Systemwide, UPMC hospitals are seeing the highest COVID-19 admissions since the peak last December, before the vaccine was widely available. While current numbers are still between two-thirds and three-quarters of last year’s high, requests for other health services are up now, too. 

In 2020, people were more isolated and less likely to get sick with other infections and viruses. But with fewer restrictions on social gatherings and high vaccination rates assuaging some fears of COVID-19 transmission, what would have been run-of-the-mill illnesses pre-pandemic are causing strain in hospitals already at their limit.

In Allegheny County, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients remains lower than last winter, but the 14-day average of available adult ICU beds is lower than ever before in the pandemic, according to the Post-Gazette. This is because of the high number of people hospitalized for non-COVID-19-related reasons.

UPMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Donald Yealy said the hospital system has been running “near capacity” for weeks. 

The result has been longer wait times in the emergency room for patients, some of whom are seriously ill. 

Yealy addressed this in a news briefing earlier this week, saying that the demand for health care has “grown dramatically over the last few months.”

He added that the biggest challenge doctors are facing now is simply having enough space to accommodate the growing number of patients.

UPMC has been able to manage its patient load by leveraging its size and flexibility, according to the Post-Gazette, and shuffling staff around to where they’re needed most. But smaller hospitals continue to struggle, often relying on transfers to larger hospital systems like UPMC. When larger facilities can’t accommodate these transfers, smaller community hospitals may have to make difficult decisions. 

Last week, Mount Nittany Medical Center in Centre County released a statement explaining its decision to briefly divert ambulances away from its emergency room.

“The entire region is feeling the impact of the surging COVID-19 transmission which is leading to more inpatient hospitalizations exacerbated by the inability to discharge patients to long-term care facilities due to their own capacity constraints,” Dr. Upendra Thaker, chief medical officer, said in a release. “As long as the high level of community transmission continues, we will have to take steps to address the issues that arise from the high volume of patients who are also requiring a high level of care.”

Thaker added that hospitals don’t often have to take “extreme measures like diverting ambulances,” but the last few months have been filled with special circumstances and unprecedented pandemic-era challenges.

“This strain is a direct result of what’s happening in the community and the region,” Thaker said. “We will have to make operational adjustments to support continuity of care to the best of our ability.”

In the first two days of December, Centre County had 177 confirmed COVID-19 cases — a two-day total higher than the number of confirmed cases for all of June and July combined. Mount Nittany was caring for 58 COVID-positive inpatients as of last week, reporting the “longest sustained period of a high COVID census at any time in the 21-month pandemic.”

Some hospitals, like WellSpan in York, are cutting back on less-urgent procedures to free up hospital staff and beds, according to PennLive. Mount Nittany has also warned of the possible postponement of some elective surgeries, as well as longer wait times in the ER. 

Butler Memorial Hospital has also had to delay some elective surgeries, according to a spokeswoman, who also noted that the hospital’s number of COVID-19 inpatients last week was close to its peak number last winter.

The staff shortages many hospitals are facing aren’t helping, either. State data shows that many area hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities are struggling to maintain the staff they need to care for patients as COVID-19 cases soar. In Allegheny County alone, there have been 849 cases reported in the past 24 hours. The commonwealth as a whole is reporting a daily average of 7,423 new cases as of Monday, up 19% from the last two weeks.

As of early Tuesday, Pennsylvania hospitals were caring for more than 4,200 COVID-19 patients. Of these, 907 were in intensive care units, and 589 were on ventilators. Most COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to occur within the unvaccinated population. Doctors are once again urging Pennsylvanians to get the shot — and the booster, too — to ensure that adequate care remains for patients with non-COVID-19 ailments like heart attacks, accidents or the flu.

Categories: The 412