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Triangle hospitals in crisis: UNC Rex has more patients than beds

Representatives from the Triangle's three major hospitals sounded an alarm Wednesday about COVID-19's strain on area hospitals and a dangerous shortage of patient beds.

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Jessica Patrick
, WRAL multiplatform producer

Representatives from the Triangle’s three major hospitals sounded an alarm Wednesday about COVID-19's strain on area hospitals and a dangerous shortage of patient beds.

Speakers from Duke Health, UNC Health and WakeMed held a virtual news conference at 10 a.m. urging the public to do their part and get vaccinated.

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According to UNC Health spokesperson Phil Bridges, approximately 463 COVID-positive patients are being treated in 12 UNC hospitals statewide. More than 3,500 COVID patients are hospitalized across the state, the most since Jan. 21. The positive testing rate stands at 13.5 percent as of Wednesday, when there were 6,130 newly-reported cases.

At UNC Rex, the ICU is full, and there are more patients than beds, Dr. Linda Butler, the hospital's chief medical officer, said. The hospital is treating 520 patients among 439 beds.

Another interesting stat to note - across the state, about 41 percent of all people in the ICU are COVID patients.

Officials from WakeMed and Duke Health echoed her concern, saying hospital beds are filling up and wait times are long.

"Our staff is working harder and our wait times are longer than they’ve ever been,” shared Dr. Timothy Plonk, emergency medical director at Duke Raleigh Hospital. “It’s creating a great deal of stress and frustration … people are having to wait longer than they ever thought they’d have to wait for healthcare in this country.”

All speakers agreed – help from the community is needed to stop this virus. People need to get vaccinated, stay home when they feel ill and wear masks, they said.

Patients in need of medical treatment can also help hospitals by considering other options, such as a primary care doctor or urgent care center, before visiting the emergency department.​

Chief physician executive Dr. Seth Brody said WakeMed currently has about 200 COVID-positive patients, and about 90% of those are unvaccinated. WakeMed is so full of COVID-19 patients that some are being treated at home, he said.

“There are breakthrough cases, we know that, but the vaccine is incredibly protective overall against hospitalization and serious illness,” Brody said.

Brody said that COVID patients are trending younger and healthier. He estimates that with Delta, the average age of those impacted is 20 years younger than the first surge.

Dr. Jose Cabañas, Wake County's chief medical officer, said Wake County EMS has received more than 10,000 calls each month for four months in a row, and the county is set to recieve more than 11,000 calls in August.

The surge is largely because people put off medical care earlier in the pandemic, Cabañas said.

Cape Fear Valley Health is also treating more patients for COVID-19 than ever before, telling WRAL News there is a possibility hospitals could run out of beds.

Cape Fear doctors and hospital staff told WRAL News they are worried the situation is approaching a crisis level. The hospital is already using outdoor tents again to treat overflow COVID-19 patients.

Elective surgeries could be postponed depending on what beds are available. Staff said 174 patients hospitalized within the Cape Fear Valley Health System are fighting a COVID-19 infection. Doctors say the majority of them are not vaccinated.

"This is by far the largest number of patients we've had in the hospital for COVID, the largest number of ICU patients from COVID, the most number of patients dying every single day and the furthest our resources have ever been stretched." said Dr. Michael Zappa, Chief Clinical Officer of Cape Fear Valley Medical Center.

Zappa said that on July 4, they had less than 15 people hospitalized with COVID and as of Wednesday, they're approaching 150. For the last two weeks, CFVH has had at least four deaths at the hospital attributable to COVID and as many as seven deaths on some days. The majority of COVID patients at the hospital are under 65, according to Zappa.

Five children are hospitalized with COVID-19 at Cape Fear, the most the hospital has seen at one time.

Currently, more than 3,300 people are fighting coronavirus from a hospital bed in North Carolina, the highest number since late January. Only 23% of hospital beds in the state are open, forcing hospitals to find a solution.

Dr. David Wohl with UNC Health has been stressing the importance of the vaccine since it became available. Dr. Wohl feels that more deaths are to come in the fall and the current COVID surge won't subside for weeks due to large amounts of people still unvaccinated.

"It’s no surprise with this Delta variant - it’s such a huge cloud that gets into someone’s system from someone coughing on them," Wohl said. "It gets in there and it keeps shedding for a few days, but if you’re unvaccinated you keep shedding much longer, infecting other people and at risk to yourself."

"Unfortunately, pretty pessimistic about the next couple of months," Dr. Wohl said of his current outlook. "I think we're in for a lot of trouble. I think we're going to see a lot of people die."

Dr. Timothy Plonk, Medical Director at Duke Raleigh Hospital, said he's let down by the current state of things regarding the pandemic.

"It’s hard to not be a little bit disappointed with our position, just as we felt light at end of tunnel, thrust into another wave of pandemic," said Plonk.

Hannah Voorhees has been on the front lines of the pandemic as a nursing assistant for Duke Regional Hospital.

"The Delta variant showed up and it just…everything just crumbled right underneath our feet," Voorhees said.


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