Central NC hospitals brace for likely surge in coronavirus patients


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – With hospitals bracing for a likely surge in coronavirus patients, Gov. Roy Cooper wants to keep track of how many beds are available.

North Carolina reported its first COVID-19-related death Wednesday while announcing the number of confirmed cases in the state has surpassed 500, and state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said at least 29 are hospitalized.

There are only roughly 23,000 hospital beds in the state and about 3,500 of those are in facilities operated by the Triangle’s three major health care providers. Cooper said officials are trying to determine how many of them are open at any given time.

“We want that information and want to have that information so that we can be ready to set up additional hospitals if and when necessary in North Carolina, because we don’t want to get into a situation where a person is not getting the kind of care that they need when they have to go to the hospital,” Cooper said.

And comparing the process of acquiring necessary medical supplies to “the wild west,” the governor said officials started work on obtaining those supplies in January and has spoken to some of the state’s textile manufacturers about producing personal protective equipment for health care workers.

The availability of ventilators has mushroomed into a pressing issue around the country, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently saying New York City needed 30,000 of them while the federal government was sending only 400 from the national stockpile.

CBS17.com also asked officials from those three Triangle-area hospitals how many ventilators they presently have, and how many they think they will need. None responded to that question.

“The demand in ventilators is proportional to the size of the surge that hospitals and health systems experience,” said Stephen Lawler, the executive director of the North Carolina Healthcare Association.

State Rep. Perrin Jones, an anesthesiologist from Pitt County, urged lawmakers to prioritize preparing medical systems for an increase in capacity to prevent them from being overwhelmed by a surge in patients. The Pitt County Republican is the co-chair of the House Select Committee on COVID-19’s Healthcare Working Group, which meets for the first time Thursday by teleconference.

“Our working group must find ways to support medical staff with the priorities they need – childcare, hazard pay, protective equipment, and telehealth services to ensure they remain on the front lines helping North Carolinians through this public health crisis,” Jones said.

The American Hospital Directory, which compiles health care-related data from several sources including the Centers from Medicare and Medicaid Services, lists a total of 23,194 staffed hospital beds at the state’s 108 hospitals.

According to AHD.com, 3,440 of those are in seven facilities run by the three major hospital systems in the Triangle – WakeMed, UNC Health and Duke Health. Of those, 2,666 are for routine services and 774 are for special care that includes intensive care.

The organization did not have any data from the UNC Hillsborough Hospital, which opened in 2015. Phil Bridges, a spokesman for UNC Health, says there are 83 beds at that facility in Orange County.

Six of the other seven had an average percent occupancy of 75 percent or higher during their most recent reporting period, according to AHD.com data, while Duke Regional Hospital was the outlier at 67 percent.

CBS17.com asked officials at those three hospitals for their current occupancy rates, but none responded.

NCHA spokeswoman Cynthia Charles says her group does not track hospital occupancy rates by date and predicted it could be difficult to measure because of the various emergency declarations and because facilities could receive flexibility to increase admission capacity or establish alternate locations to care for patients.

NCDHHS two weeks ago temporarily relaxed rules to allow medical facilities to increase bed capacity if needed to treat coronavirus patients.

“When the worst is over, we could potentially look back and get a sense of how capacity fluctuated from week to week during the cycle,” she said.

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