DENVER (KDVR) – The biggest spike in COVID-19 hospital admissions in Colorado this year coincides with a low point in hospital bed stocks across the state and is a major concern for public health and hospital officials.
On Thursday, state data showed 1,201 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, the highest since Christmas last year as Colorado descended from its highest rise in COVID hospital stays.
But even when we saw most of the Coloradans in the hospital due to COVID-19 on December 2, 2020 with 1,995 patients, we still had a far greater distance between the beds than we do now. At that time there were 1,845 beds, today there are only 934.
“Operations are canceled. Brain and heart surgeries are being delayed because these patients cannot be cared for due to the effects of COVID hospital admissions, ”Scott Bookman, incident commander for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a briefing with the governor Thursday.
How did we get to a time when we need as many beds as possible and ICU capacity is 90% or more across Colorado?
It turns out that several factors contribute to this deficiency.
Hospitalization for non-COVID reasons
When Coloradans tried to return to normal, hospitals saw more people come through their doors for the same reasons as before the pandemic.
“We’re seeing a lot more respiratory virus earlier this season,” said Cara Welch of the Colorado Hospital Association. “We had our trauma season over the summer, which has kept our hospitals incredibly busy.”
While people stayed indoors for a good part of 2020 to avoid the virus, they may have postponed necessary health visits out of caution not to contract it.
“We also unfortunately see many people in our hospitals who may not have received the preventive or regular care in our hospitals that they would have received earlier during the pandemic, and now they are coming to the hospital.” In a much more acute condition and need more intensive hospital care, ”said Welch.
A year and a half after the pandemic, resources remain tight in hospitals across the state and across the country.
“It’s not just about the available space in the hospital, it’s also about our supplies, like the PPE, which was a challenge at the beginning, and also about our staff,” said Welch.
Staff is a major concern for hospitals
“We have seen national estimates that up to one in five healthcare workers has died during the pandemic,” Welch said.
Be it burnout from the job, a change of career path or resistance to mandates, staff shortages are not only found in Colorado. Welch said that while vaccine mandates are blamed for this scarcity when discussed in public and in the media, she does not believe this is a major contributor to this scarcity.
“We know the mandate is challenging in some of our communities, but our vaccination rates in our health organizations, and in our hospitals in particular, have been incredibly high,” said Welch.
The CDPHE collects data on how many health professionals have been terminated or laid off due to vaccination regulations. Although full data is not currently available, facilities have reported 1.35% of employees in licensed facilities have left home due to vaccine requirements, according to a spokesman.
UCHealth, the state’s largest healthcare provider, laid off 119 employees for failing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which is just 0.5% of its 26,000+ employees.
Another recruiting challenge: Healthcare workers are leaving Colorado to take higher-paying field service jobs based on demand.
“We see some of our healthcare workers who have chosen to leave a full-time position here to work for a recruitment agency or travel nurse agency where they can get a pretty big bonus and work in other states where they are they can offer a lot of money to get an employee in. “
COVID-19 hospital stays
While the state has had the highest number of COVID-19 hospital admissions this year, it still doesn’t make up the majority of patients in Colorado intensive care units.
“From what we hear from our hospitals, it’s between 20 and 40% of the total patient population,” said Welch. “It’s not the bulk of the pie, but it’s a piece of the pie that is big enough that it would help us tremendously if we cut those numbers.”
Still, the vast majority of Coloradans hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, at a rate of 79%. Governor Polis said in Thursday’s address that the median age of breakthrough vaccinated cases in the hospital is much higher, suggesting these populations are more at risk and more susceptible to the virus.
“So much of that isn’t COVID right now, but if we could cut our COVID numbers it would help us a lot,” Welch said. “We are also entering the flu season and there are many other things that are causing this uncertainty in our hospitals.”
Welch recommends that anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated get a shot, and the rest of Coloradans, get their booster and flu shot to help with an overwhelmed system.
What hospitals do
Hospitals can do some things to free up resources to increase capacity or the total number of beds, but the balancing act puts a heavy strain on the system.
“Our hospitals are pulling all of these levers right now,” Welch said. “Some of these can cancel scheduled procedures, we know that some of our systems have been doing this for weeks.”
Welch said hospitals moved patients as needed. Rural hospitals have sent some on the Denver subway to help with more severe cases, and Denver hospitals have sent patients to rural hospitals who are in the final stages of care to make room.
Another tactic that hospitals use is called “diversion,” which involves directing emergency services and ambulances to take patients to the nearest hospital to manage capacity.
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