RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Even as North Carolina already sees record numbers of people in the hospital due to COVID-19, a team of experts projects a significant increase in hospitalizations later this month that could be especially challenging for rural hospitals. 

The COVSIM modeling team, which includes experts at N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Georgia Tech released an updated report this week that shows rural hospitals could see patient counts two to four times higher than what they saw during the previous peak last January. 

Hospitals could see that impact over the next four to six weeks.  

“I think rural hospitals, in particular, are going to be hit by higher cases because they tend to have lower vaccination rates and their hospitals also don’t have a lot of flexible capacity,” said Dr. Julie Swann, an expert on health systems at N.C. State. “When hospitals are full, we know that mortality and negative outcomes get worse for everything.” 

As of Friday, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported 4,381 people are in hospitals with COVID-19.  

Because of how transmissible the omicron variant is, hospital officials say many of the patients they’re treating are there for reasons other than COVID-19 and happen to test positive while they’re there. It’s estimated incidental COVID-19 patients make up 50 percent of hospitalizations at UNC, a third at Duke Health, and 40 percent at WakeMed. 

The challenge for hospitals is that they still have to follow the necessary protocols to treat those patients while minimizing further spread.  

“We have to take the same precautions from them. So, raw volume is a concern. Staffing always is a concern,” said Stephen Lawler, president and CEO of the North Carolina Healthcare Association, which represents the state’s hospitals. “The folks that are doing the work are really figuring it out and then working well together to make sure we’re able to avert a monumental crisis here in North Carolina.” 

Lawler said hospitals are taking steps like reducing elective procedures and have mutual aid agreements with one another. He said the state is coordinating a transfer center to move patients among hospitals to account for overcrowding and treat them at facilities that have the staff to care for them. 

“Every day, we’re looking at a math problem,” Lawler said. “I think it’s just pure volume. It’s like pouring water into a cup, and, at some point, the cup overflows.” 

Swann said staffing is a primary concern, especially in rural hospitals.  

“Right now is not the time get into a car wreck. It is not the time to fall off a ladder fixing your roof. And, that’s a terrible way to think about it, but it’s true,” she said. “It’s really important for the next four to six weeks to really try to stay away from needing a hospital for COVID or something else. Because we are just not going to have the capacity to deal with the surge.” 

This week the NCHA wrote an open letter to the people of North Carolina urging vaccinations and mask-wearing, saying the omicron variant is “spreading like wildfire.