Data show rapidly growing number of ICU patients in NC are there because of COVID-19

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The percentage of intensive care patients in North Carolina with COVID-19 has doubled in less than two months, a data analysis found.

With the state’s COVID-19 hospitalization numbers setting records seemingly every day, more patients are winding up in the ICU — especially those with the coronavirus.

ICUs across the state have been more than 80 percent full every day since Dec. 1, establishing a record high Tuesday at 85 percent, an analysis of state Department of Health and Human Services data found.

The biggest change is what proportion of those patients has COVID-19.

Of the 2,072 ICU beds that were occupied Tuesday, 813 of them — or, more than 39 percent — were filled with adult COVID-19 patients.

Both of those figures are single-day records, and while it’s common sense on the surface, the striking part is just how rapidly that percentage has grown.

It’s more than double what it was on Nov. 13, when just 18 percent of the occupied ICU beds were taken by people infected with the virus.

That’s putting even more of a strain on a health care system that’s already stretched thin.

“Hospital capacity continues to remain tight, as it has since early December and is something that certain regions across the state have to monitor very carefully to ensure they have the available beds there, should they be needed,” said Dr. Mark Holmes, the director of the Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina.

“We need to make sure that we have not just the beds available and the equipment but the humans to take care of us, should we end up in the ICU,” he added.

DHHS gets no more granular with its hospital data than the eight regions into which it has divided the state.

ICUs in four of those regions were more than 90 percent full Tuesday, according to DHHS data, topped by a 93.8 percent occupancy rate in the region anchored by Duke that includes Durham County, five counties along the Virginia border and Robeson County to the south.

ICUs in the Capital region — which includes Wake and four surrounding counties — were at 91.7 percent full, according to the DHHS data.

But hospitals in the seven-county region in the southeastern corner of the state were just 56.2 percent full, the data showed.

DHHS reported a record 3,781 COVID patients in hospitals across the state — setting a high for the fourth straight day and 12th time in 16 days — and about 22 percent of those hospitalized patients are in ICUs, a proportion that has been fairly consistent over the past few months.

But as hospitals continue to fill — reaching 76 percent capacity overall, according to state data — health leaders are thinking creatively about solutions, with possibilities including postponing elective surgeries. Two hospitals in Johnston County that said they were at capacity last week have paused those surgeries until Jan. 11, UNC Health spokesman Alan Wolf said.

Other possibilities include creating makeshift space or shifting patients to other hospitals that have more room.

“The hospitals in North Carolina have a number of safety valves they could trip,” Holmes said. “They can convert some of the spaces. … There’s ability to cross-pollinate to transfer hospitals. If one gets full, they can go to others. Rural hospitals, as an example, have the ability to take in — if there’s overcrowding in some of our urban settings, they can take in some people who may not be quite ready to go home but still need to be in a hospital, but can get that care that they need in a rural. 

“So there’s ability to work together across the hospitals across the state,” he added. “They have a long history of doing in order to help manage that surge.”

CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.

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