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COVID-clogged ICUs ‘terrify’ those with chronic or emergency illness


Jessica Gosnell, MD, 41, from Portland, Oregon, lives daily with the knowledge that her rare disease — a form of hereditary angioedema — could cause a sudden, severe swelling in her throat that could require quick intubation and land her in an intensive care unit (ICU) for days.

“I’ve been hospitalized for throat swells three times in the last year,” she said in an interview.

Dr. Gosnell no longer practices medicine because of a combination of illnesses, but lives with her husband, Andrew, and two young children, and said they are all “terrified” she will have to go to the hospital amid a COVID-19 surge that had shrunk the number of available ICU beds to 152 from 780 in Oregon as of Aug. 30. Thirty percent of the beds are in use for patients with COVID-19.

She said her life depends on being near hospitals that have ICUs and having access to highly specialized medications, one of which can cost up to $50,000 for the rescue dose.

Her fear has her “literally living bedbound.” In addition to hereditary angioedema, she has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which weakens connective tissue. She wears a cervical collar 24/7 to keep from tearing tissues, as any tissue injury can trigger a swell.

Patients worry there won’t be room

As ICU beds in most states are filling with COVID-19 patients as the Delta variant spreads, fears are rising among people like Dr. Gosnell, who have chronic conditions and diseases with unpredictable emergency visits, who worry that if they need emergency care there won’t be room.

As of Aug. 30, in the United States, 79% of ICU beds nationally were in use, 30% of them for COVID-19 patients, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In individual states, the picture is dire. Alabama has fewer than 10% of its ICU beds open across the entire state. In Florida, 93% of ICU beds are filled, 53% of them with COVID patients. In Louisiana, 87% of beds were already in use, 45% of them with COVID patients, just as category 4 hurricane Ida smashed into the coastline on Aug. 29.

News reports have told of people transported and airlifted as hospitals reach capacity.

In Bellville, Tex., U.S. Army veteran Daniel Wilkinson needed advanced care for gallstone pancreatitis that normally would take 30 minutes to treat, his Bellville doctor, Hasan Kakli, MD, told CBS News.

Mr. Wilkinson’s house was three doors from Bellville Hospital, but the hospital was not equipped to treat the condition. Calls to other hospitals found the same answer: no empty ICU beds. After a 7-hour wait on a stretcher, he was airlifted to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Houston, but it was too late. He died on August 22 at age 46.

Dr. Kakli said, “I’ve never lost a patient with this diagnosis. Ever. I’m scared that the next patient I see is someone that I can’t get to where they need to get to. We are playing musical chairs with 100 people and 10 chairs. When the music stops, what happens?”

Also in Texas in August, Joe Valdez, who was shot six times as an unlucky bystander in a domestic dispute, waited for more than a week for surgery at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston, which was over capacity with COVID patients, the Washington Post reported.

Others with chronic diseases fear needing emergency services or even entering a hospital for regular care with the COVID surge.

Nicole Seefeldt, 44, from Easton, Penn., who had a double-lung transplant in 2016, said that she hasn’t been able to see her lung transplant specialists in Philadelphia — an hour-and-a-half drive — for almost 2 years because of fear of contracting COVID. Before the pandemic, she made the trip almost weekly.

“I protect my lungs like they’re children,” she said.

She relies on her local hospital for care, but has put off some needed care, such as a colonoscopy, and has relied on telemedicine because she wants to limit her hospital exposure.

Ms. Seefeldt now faces an eventual kidney transplant, as her kidney function has been reduced to 20%. In the meantime, she worries she will need emergency care for either her lungs or kidneys.

“For those of us who are chronically ill or disabled, what if we have an emergency that is not COVID-related? Are we going to be able to get a bed? Are we going to be able to get treatment? It’s not just COVID patients who come to the [emergency room],” she said.


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