Straining under record numbers of COVID-19 patients, hundreds of the nation’s intensive care units are running out of space and supplies and competing to hire temporary traveling nurses at soaring rates. Many of the facilities are clustered in the South and West.
An Associated Press analysis of federal hospital data shows that since November, the share of U.S. hospitals nearing the breaking point has doubled. More than 40% of Americans now live in areas running out of ICU space, with only 15% of beds still available.
According to data through Thursday from the COVID Tracking Project, hospitalizations are still high in the West and the South, with over 80,000 current COVID-19 hospital patients in those regions. Encouragingly, hospitalizations appear to have either plateaued or are trending downward across all regions. It’s unclear whether the easing will continue with more contagious versions of the virus arising and snags in the rollout of vaccines.
Hospitals say they are upholding high standards for patient care, but experts say surges compromise many normal medical practices. Overwhelmed hospitals might be forced to mobilize makeshift ICUs and staff them with personnel without any experience in critical care. They might run out of sedatives, antibiotics, IVs or other supplies they rely on to keep patients calm and comfortable while on ventilators.
“It’s really daunting and mentally taxing. You’re doing what you believe to be best practice,” said Kiersten Henry, a nurse at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney, Maryland, and a board director for the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.
In Oklahoma City, OU Medicine Chief Medical Officer Dr. Cameron Mantor said while the vaccines hold promise, hope still seems dim as ICU cases keep mounting. The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations at OU Medicine has declined from more than 100 daily in recent weeks to 98 on Wednesday, Mantor said.
“What is stressing everybody out,” Mantor said, “is looking at week after week after week, the spigot is not being turned off, not knowing there is a break, not seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.”