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Southwestern Pennsylvania Hospitals Say They're Ready In Case Of Another COVID Surge

Keith Srakocic
Allegheny General Hospital

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Allegheny County and across Pennsylvania are at the same level last seen in mid-November of last year, according to data from the state’s Department of Health.

Meanwhile, hospitals in Montana and Idaho are operating under what is known as “crisis standards of care,” which is when hospital staff can decide to ration care so as to save as many patients as possible. Despite the Pittsburgh area’s relatively high vaccination rate, some wonder if area medical systems are also headed for surges.

“That is the question of the moment,” said Dr. Rachel Sackrowitz, the chief medical officer of UPMC’s intensive care unit service center.

In December, when hospitalizations peaked, the county had more than 800 COVID patients. Currently, some 300 people in Allegheny County are hospitalized with COVID. These numbers are stable enough that UPMC and Allegheny Health Network say they often accept patients from other medical networks with more limited resources.

However, new coronavirus cases continue to rise. Allegheny County’s health department reports that in the past week there were roughly 400 new cases a day, which is up from the previous week's average of 300 cases per day. If more county residents were vaccinated, the case levels would likely decline as has been seen in parts of California.

When asked about contingency plans at a Wednesday press conference, the head of Allegheny County’s health department cautioned that, though COVID hospitalizations have increased some, the county is far from the darkest days of the pandemic.

“Our hospitals all have surge plans. They have ways to make adjustments on where beds are," said department director Dr. Debra Bogen. "And they also can do things like postponing non-urgent surgeries."

Hospital administrators agree they’ve learned a lot since March of last year. Regarding UPMC, Sackrotiwz said the medical system has amassed a stockpile of equipment and refined its approach to capacity and logistical management so as to make more efficient use of resources across its 40-hospital network.

But the extensive planning does not solve the national nursing shortage, which has made it hard for many U.S. medical systems regardless of a community’s level of COVID transmission. According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll published in April, some 30% of health care workers say they’ve considered leaving their profession.

“Recruiters are in overdrive,” said Dr. Don Whiting, Allegheny Health Network’s chief medical officer.

Whiting reports that there are about 140 COVID patients across AHN's 13 hospitals and that these numbers seem to be holding steady for the moment. Even so, he's looking to hire more staff since providers are busy performing medical procedures that were postponed earlier in the pandemic.

UPMC is also working on recruitment and retention, said Sackowitz. But what happens with regard to COVID numbers comes down to the public’s willingness to get vaccinated, wear face masks, and take other precautions.

“What’s unique in this moment is that so much power rests in the hands of people,” said Sackrowitz.

With the anticipated approval of the Pfizer vaccine for kids as young as age 5, Whiting wondered if COVID hospitalizations may soon start to decrease. “We’re hoping for the best. Planning for the worst.”

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.