As virus case counts and statewide hospitalization numbers climb, hospitals prepare for a surge they hope can be avoided

Hospital capacity is a major concern as virus spreads

SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - As North Carolina continues to see record-breaking numbers of hospitalized coronavirus patients, leaders at Cape Fear area hospitals say the region’s hospitals still have room for patients, but they are closely monitoring the situation.

The state saw the number of hospitalizations top 1,600 Monday, and New Hanover Regional Medical Center has been averaging 31 hospitalized COVID patients each day, according to the hospital’s most recent update on Nov. 20.

Still, Chief Clinical Officer Dr. West Paul said the hospital is not seeing the kind of strain those in the Midwest and Great Plains are seeing.

“We haven’t seen those type of cases, although our numbers continue to go up,” he said, “Not to the point we can’t handle—we’re not at the point where we’ve canceled elective surgeries or anything like that, but we monitor them closely.”

Paul said the initial surges in March and April and then the summer surge in July taught the hospital a lot—including how to best bank a supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“We’ve had contingency plans in place, really since March, on how to align our hospital, our rooms and our staff,” he said.

That staff piece is crucial, because capacity is about more than the number of beds the hospital has—in many cases capacity issues come from having a limited number of staff to safely run those beds, especially in the ICU.

“You’re seeing that in the Midwest to where they may have the space, but the staff tend to be really hard to find,” he said.

Nurse shortages were on the horizon before the pandemic even began, and the fatigue of the pandemic has long since set in.

On top of that, many places around the country have had staff infected with the virus, though Paul said NHRMC has largely escaped that side of the issue.

“We’ve been doing pretty well; we’ve had one of the lower numbers of staff being infected really in the state and probably in the country,” he said, “and a lot of that, is their good work.”

Regional Issue

NHRMC serves seven counties in Southeastern North Carolina, but not alone.

At Novant Health’s Brunswick Medical Center, they are closely watching the numbers as well, especially in neighboring counties like Columbus that has been seeing some of the worst rates of infection.

“We’re working with local health departments and other facilities around us on an ongoing basis around their volumes and their capacities,” said Brunswick Medical Center President Shelbourn Stevens.

“We’re all going to continue to work together. If we do see that spike here in Southeastern North Carolina. Our goal is to get patients to the right level of care that they need. And we’ll all be able to do that working together like we’ve been doing since March.”

Stevens said his hospital is also doing well when it comes to capacity, and they’ve expanded their network options for testing throughout the county.

Stevens too said one of the key pieces of the puzzle is staff, and he applauded the resiliency of his while noting leadership continues to try to find ways to fight burnout.

“We routinely try to give team members a break so they can get into a room alone, alone and take off their mask and get a breather, but they’ve done a remarkable job taking care of our patients and taking care of each other.”

Watching Closely

While capacity is not an issue now, Paul said he and his team have not relaxed their efforts, and neither should the public.

Even though news about the coming vaccine may mean there is a “light at the end of the tunnel,” he said; aggressive mask wearing and social distancing will be needed, especially during the holiday season, if hospitals are not going to be overrun.

“This is not gone,” he said. “In fact, it will get worse before it gets better. We all know it’s going to get worse.”

“The last thing we want is to overwhelm our health system, because as you know, we still take care of the general medical patients; so, people still have heart attacks, they still have strokes. And when our hospitals become full of COVID patients, that care is affected; there’s no way not to be affected.”

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