Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Contact 90.5 WESA with a story idea or news tip:

Pennsylvania Hospital Beds Filling Up Amid Virus Surge

Jeff Roberson
Dr. Shane Wilson, left, talks with COVID-19 patient Glen Cowell as the 68-year-old farmer rests in his bed inside Scotland County Hospital Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Memphis, Mo.

Hospital beds are filling up and medical staffs are being stretched to the limit as Pennsylvania’s health care system copes with a growing number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients.<--break->

Nearly half of all hospitals in the south-central region of the state, and a third of those in the southwest, anticipate staffing shortages within a week, according to the state Department of Health. Nurses in the Philadelphia area say they’re overloaded with COVID-19 patients, impacting the quality of care they can provide.

And Pennsylvania’s top health official, Dr. Rachel Levine, said Thursday she’s worried about modeling that shows the state will run out of intensive care beds this month. More than 85% of the state’s ICU beds are occupied amid an enormous statewide spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations this fall.

The health secretary added that she's even more concerned about hospital staffing. While medical-surgical beds can be converted into ICU beds, the supply of medical workers is “not infinite."

"Hospitals have the ability to divert staff from one area to another, and hospitals can share staff if they absolutely have to as well," Levine said. “But there is a point where that is straining the health care system ... I hear from physicians and from hospital leadership all the time about how strained the hospitals are."

On Thursday, Pennsylvania reported more than 5,000 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, the state's highest point in the pandemic and up from a statewide average of about 450 at the end of September.

At UPMC Altoona, all 14 medical ICU beds are taken by virus patients, while other virus patients are crowding into other units, said Paula Stellabotte, a medical ICU nurse there.

“We don’t have enough (staff) in the whole building,” Stellabotte told The Associated Press. “We did just get some travel nurses brought in, which will hopefully help. We have some people who have left because they don’t want to keep doing this kind of work” with COVID-19 patients.

Stellabotte said she is frustrated at the lack of support for public education — wear a mask, stay home — and she wishes UPMC would restrict visitors and stop elective surgeries to take some pressure off.

“As soon as one bed’s empty, there's like two or three (COVID-19 patients) ready to come in,” Stellabotte said. "It’s non-stop.”

At St. Mary Medical Center outside Philadelphia, where hundreds of unionized nurses went on strike over staffing levels last month, nurse John Chapman said Thursday that nurses are expected to care for five, six or even seven COVID patients at a time.

These patients “require so much time and they deserve the best of care, and these ratios are getting too high,” Chapman told AP. “You cannot in any way provide the care these patients need, and the monitoring.”

Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, which owns St. Mary and four other hospitals in the area, said in a written statement that its “top priority has been and continues to be providing safe, timely, compassionate and high-quality patient care.” Trinity is treating about 215 COVID-19 patients at its hospitals, a spokesperson said.

Chapman’s union, the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses & Allied Professionals, said hospitals’ COVID volumes are approaching or even exceeding what they were in the spring.

Yet hospitals are still doing elective procedures — unlike early in the pandemic — “so those staff are busy and unable to help with the surge,” said a union spokesperson, Megan Gorman.

Levine recently ordered hospitals to delay elective procedures if they're located in a region of the state where COVID admissions, hospital staffing and bed capacity reach critical levels, but a temporary pause has yet to be triggered anywhere.

At Temple University Hospital, staffing shortages are leading to burnout and also mean “there’s less eyes on the patient,” said nurse Francine Frezghi, president of the union local.

"People are going to suffer, our patients are going to suffer in care,” she said.

Temple University Health System said in a written statement that it has hired hundreds of nurses since spring and has a good supply of equipment and personal protective gear.

“Temple University Hospital is systematically reviewing our staffing and resources on a daily basis to effectively manage this surge across our health system,” the health system said.

Pennsylvania is averaging 6,800 new virus cases per day, up 23% in two weeks, according to an AP analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project. The state shattered its single-day record on Thursday, reporting 11,406 new cases.

Deaths in Pennsylvania have more than doubled since Nov. 18 to an average of 94 per day.