‘We are strained but we still have space’: Mecklenburg County hospitals discuss ICU capacity

Rise in COVID-19 cases create strain on hospitals

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - As COVID-19 numbers continue to increase, hospitals are continuing to feel the impacts including fuller ICUs and more strain on their staff.

Here in Mecklenburg County, hospitals are keeping a close eye on their ICU’s and making constant adjustments to bed capacity and their staffing where they see fit.

Some doctors say that although the hospitals are OK for now with bed capacity flexibility, some are concerned it won’t always be that way if cases continue to increase in the county.

“We’re also in the midst of the most dangerous part of the pandemic,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen at a Tuesday press briefing. She said over the weekend the state saw more than 11,000 new cases of COVID-19.

For health care workers and hospital leadership, this could mean a bad sign for what could come.

“They know that the more this virus spread, the more people are going get it, the more people who are gonna get sick and are going to be in the ICU beds,” said Governor Cooper.

In Mecklenburg County, 95% of ICU beds are being used. This is according to U.S. Health and Human Services data compiled by the University of Minnesota COVID-19 Hospitalization Tracker.

But still, health care leaders say they’re not yet at a red alert level.

“We don’t anticipate any capacity issues in Mecklenburg County or at Novant health facilities in the next two weeks,” said Dr. David Priest with Novant Health.

But only 60 percent of those ICU beds are occupied by COVID-19 cases according to that same data set.

Percentage of total ICU beds occupied in Mecklenburg County hospitals
Percentage of total ICU beds occupied in Mecklenburg County hospitals (Source: WBTV)
Percentage of ICU beds occupied by COVID patients in Mecklenburg County hospitals
Percentage of ICU beds occupied by COVID patients in Mecklenburg County hospitals (Source: WBTV)

And it’s even less if you look at individual hospitals. Both Atrium CMC and Novant Presbyterian have more than 85 percent of ICU beds occupied.

But far less than half of those patients are due to COVID according to data from U.S. health and human services.

According to a statement from Atrium Health, they’ve increased their bed capacity to help with the increase in cases.

“At Atrium Health, during peak times, we can flex bed space to create additional capacity as needed. Because of this, providing an overall capacity number can be misleading, since it can change from one day to the next. For example, if we are at ‘x’ percent capacity one day and we add to the number of available beds in a facility to serve an increase in patients, the overall capacity percentage will decrease. Simply stated, as the denominator changes, so will the capacity percentage.”

You can read the full statement from Atrium Health at the bottom of this article.

“We are strained but stable,” said Dr. Priest with Novant.

Both hospital systems say they’ve increased their bed capacity to help with the strain. A doctor with Novant Health also said the percentage of occupied ICU beds is similar to pre-pandemic years especially compared to the winter months.

His concern comes with if the COVID-19 spread in Mecklenburg continues to increase.

“Certainly those numbers are high and those number are likely to continue to go up some. It’s certainly a concern and we need to see the modeling decline,” said Dr. Sidney Fletcher with Novant Health.

As of now both hospital systems are still admitting other patients for emergency and non-emergency surgeries but they say that is something that they are constantly looking at and adjusting when needed while looking at beds and staffing available.

Statement from Atrium Health:

“Teams across Atrium Health have been planning from the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic for a variety of scenarios, including an increase in patients. Like all hospitals across the state and around the country, the number of patients has increased in recent weeks. This is exactly why medical experts have been advocating and stressing the critical need for the community to stay home, wear a facemask and wash their hands frequently. Another way the community can help stop the spread of COVID-19, and help decrease patient volumes, is by getting vaccinated when it is their turn. Atrium Health is proud and excited for the promise that comes with the COVID-19 vaccine, which we began administering to the those 75 and older earlier this week, as part of the state’s Phase 1b, Group 1.

Most hospitals across the state have been given permission to increase bed capacity if the need arises. At Atrium Health, during peak times, we can flex bed space to create additional capacity as needed. Because of this, providing an overall capacity number can be misleading, since it can change from one day to the next. For example, if we are at ‘x’ percent capacity one day and we add to the number of available beds in a facility to serve an increase in patients, the overall capacity percentage will decrease. Simply stated, as the denominator changes, so will the capacity percentage.

Atrium Health’s innovative Hospital at Home program has been widely successful to allow low acuity patients to be treated in the comfort of their own home. We’ve treated nearly 50,000 through this nationally leading program and strongly believe it is one of the reasons we’re able to continue to treat more severely ill patients in our hospitals. With around 100 patients currently being treated at home, it’s clear to see the positive impact it is having on available bed space at our facilities that then can be used for patients needing a higher level of care.

Atrium Health has leading healthcare experts monitoring the situation around the clock and we are prepared to implement any needed part of our plans for an increase in patients, as necessary. With our COVID-Safe protocols in place, anyone needing any kind of emergency treatment should not delay care and should seek immediate attention.”

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