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Hospitals struggle to find nurses, beds, even oxygen as Delta surges


The state of Mississippi is out of intensive care unit beds. The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson – the state’s largest health system – is converting part of a parking garage into a field hospital to make more room.

delta variant of coronavirus Andriy Onufriyenko

“Hospitals are full from Memphis to Gulfport, Natchez to Meridian. Everything’s full,” said Alan Jones, MD, the hospital’s COVID-19 response leader, in a press briefing Aug. 11.

The state has requested the help of a federal disaster medical assistance team of physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, and paramedics to staff the extra beds. The goal is to open the field hospital on Aug. 13.

Arkansas hospitals have as little as eight ICU beds left to serve a population of 3 million people. Alabama isn’t far behind.

As of Aug. 10, several large metro Atlanta hospitals were diverting patients because they were full.

Hospitals in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas are canceling elective surgeries, as they are flooded with COVID patients.

Florida has ordered more ventilators from the federal government. Some hospitals in that state have so many patients on high-flow medical oxygen that it is taxing the building supply lines.

“Most hospitals were not designed for this type of volume distribution in their facilities,” said Mary Mayhew, president of the Florida Hospital Association.

That’s when they can get it. Oxygen deliveries have been disrupted because of a shortage of drivers who are trained to transport it.

“Any disruption in the timing of a delivery can be hugely problematic because of the volume of oxygen they’re going through,” Ms. Mayhew said.

Hospitals ‘under great stress’

In a setting where most Americans now have access to safe and highly effective vaccines, hospitals in the Southeast are once again under siege from COVID-19.

Over the month of June, the number of COVID patients in Florida hospitals soared from 2,000 to 10,000. Ms. Mayhew says it took twice as long during the last surge for the state to reach those numbers. And they’re still climbing. The state had 15,000 hospitalized COVID patients as of Aug. 11.

COVID hospitalizations tripled in 3 weeks in South Carolina, said state epidemiologist Linda Bell, MD, in a news conference Aug. 11.

“These hospitals are under great stress,” says Eric Toner, MD, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore

The Delta variant has swept through the unvaccinated South with such veracity that hospitals in the region are unable to keep up. Patients with non-COVID health conditions are in jeopardy too.

Lee Owens, age 56, said he was supposed to have triple bypass surgery on Aug. 12 at St. Thomas West Hospital in Nashville, Tenn. Three of the arteries around his heart are 100%, 90%, and 70% blocked. Mr. Owens said the hospital called him Aug. 10 to postpone his surgery because they’ve cut back elective procedures to just one each day because the ICU beds there are full.

“I’m okay with having to wait a few days (my family isn’t!), especially if there are people worse than me, but so much anger at the reason,” he said. “These idiots that refused health care are now taking up my slot for heart surgery. It’s really aggravating.”

Anjali Bright, a spokesperson for St. Thomas West, provided a statement to this news organization saying they are not suspending elective procedures, but they are reviewing those “requiring an inpatient stay on a case-by-case basis.”

She emphasized, though, that “we will never delay care if the patient’s status changes to ‘urgent.’ ”

“Because of how infectious this variant is, this has the potential to be so much worse than what we saw in January,” said Donald Williamson, MD, president of the Alabama Hospital Association.

Dr. Williamson said they have modeled three possible scenarios for spread in the state, which ranks dead last in the United States for vaccination, with just 35% of its population fully protected. If the Delta variant spreads as it did in the United Kingdom, Alabama could see it hospitalize up to 3,000 people.

“That’s the best scenario,” he said.

If it sweeps through the state as it did in India, Alabama is looking at up to 4,500 patients hospitalized, a number that would require more beds and more staff to care for patients.

Then, there is what Dr. Williamson calls his “nightmare scenario.” If the entire state begins to see transmission rates as high as they’re currently seeing in coastal Mobile and Baldwin counties, that could mean up to 8,000 people in the hospital.

“If we see R-naughts of 5-8 statewide, we’re in real trouble,” he said. The R-naught is the basic rate of reproduction, and it means that each infected person would go on to infect 5-8 others. Dr. Williamson said the federal government would have to send them more staff to handle that kind of a surge.


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