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Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital Adds Tent To Increase Emergency Care Capacity

Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA
UPMC's Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh will open a tent this the weekend to meet the demands of an ongoing surge of kids needing emergency care.

Some children needing emergency medical care soon will be treated within a tent that’s outside UMPC’s Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Like many pediatric hospitals in the U.S., Pittsburgh is seeing what Dr. Raymond Pitetti described as a “huge” increase in patient volumes. He said the surge began several weeks ago.

The sharp rise in pediatric patients is due to COVID-19, as well as other respiratory viruses. These include parainfluenza virus or respiratory syncytial virus, also called RSV, which most often are seen in winter. Many respiratory viruses have been circulating aggressively this summer in the absence of mask mandates.

“[People] should not be alarmed by the tent. This is something we’re doing just actually to get ahead of things... so that we can continue to see kids and see them as fast and effectively as we can,” said Pitetti, who is the chief of the hospital’s emergency department.

The tent is expected to open for medical care during the weekend. Hospital officials hope it will decrease wait times that can exceed two hours, Pitetti said.

Kids will still enter through the emergency department front door or ambulance bay. As of now, those needing COVID-19 tests will be triaged to the 10-bed tent. The outdoor unit eventually may be used for other patients, especially with the approach of flu season.

The hospital also opened an indoor, 10-bed “fast track unit” this week for emergency patients needing lower acuity care. Pitetti said the addition of this unit and tent boosts emergency department capacity from 46 to 66 beds.

Regarding COVID, cases among children 12 and younger are increasing in Allegheny County. According to the head of the county's health department, in June there were just 67 cases among children in this age group. There were 157 in July, and 773 in August. According to data collected by the American Academy of Pediatrics, between 0.1% and 1.9% of kids who test positive for COVID are hospitalized.

Intensive care beds also are filling up at Pittsburgh Children’s, which is the only pediatric hospital in southwest Pennsylvania. State data show that Allegheny County has just five available pediatric ICU beds available as of Friday afternoon. Earlier this week there was only one bed available. The Children’s Hospital website says that its ICU contains 36 beds, though this number can be increased.

“There have been times when the hospital appears on paper to be full, but what we will do is open up new units and create new beds and new areas where patients can be admitted to,” said Pitetti, who noted this was done a couple of flu seasons ago, as well as in 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic.

"I will reassure parents, we will always have a place for their kids," he said. "We will always be able to care for them."

UPMC did not directly answer questions about whether the facility has added ICU beds, and it would not provide specific numbers regarding its ICU capacity. A hospital spokeswoman said it has the “capacity to care for any child needing intensive care.”

When asked for comment on the increase in pediatric hospital patients, the Pennsylvania Department of Health said it is working to address the “concerning” increases that are occurring at facilities across the state.

“We encourage those [eligible] to get vaccinated and help protect those who may be too young to be vaccinated,” said a department spokeswoman.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.