This week’s opening of a Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in Lenoir to help Caldwell UNC Health Care (Caldwell Memorial Hospital) and hospitals in Boone, Hickory and Morganton handle COVID-19-related patient overflow was sobering news.

Some area hospitals are already operating at or beyond capacity due to a spike in COVID cases in recent weeks.

The spike is expected to worsen in January and February due to Christmas holiday gatherings. Samaritan’s Purse was contacted about setting up the temporary hospital, which is for COVID patients not needing a ventilator, due to this situation. (Components of these emergency hospitals are stored at Samaritan’s Purse facilities in North Wilkesboro.)

Cone Health, a hospital system that includes Moses Cone and other facilities in the Greensboro area, announced Monday that the system’s 924 staffed beds will be filled by Jan. 21 and reach a near 50% shortfall by late April if current COVID-19 hospitalization trends continue. Cone Health has a new feature on its website that tells the number COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients expected at its hospitals in coming months.

Specific information about capacity at Wilkes Medical Center wasn’t available this week or earlier during the pandemic from officials there or at Wake Forest Baptist Health Center, which operates the hospital under a long-term lease agreement with the Town of North Wilkesboro.

Chad Brown, Wilkes Medical Center president, released a statement Monday saying Wilkes Medical Center and the Wake Forest Baptist Health system “are seeing a very high number of patients requiring hospitalization due to COVID-19. We are constantly monitoring capacity projections across the region and continue to evaluate and adjust our surge plans and staffing to ensure we are meeting the health care needs of those who depend on us.”

The New York Times is gathering data on hospital capacity nationwide from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and making it available at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/covid-hospitals-near-you.html.

The latest update from the Times, dated Jan. 4, lists Wilkes Medical Center’s intensive care unit as 76% occupied, with two ICU beds available and with nine COVID patients. About two weeks ago, the report said Wilkes Medical Center ICU was over 90% occupied.

Wake Forest Baptist’s ICU was 87% occupied as of Jan. 4. It had 85 COVID patients and 14 ICU beds available.

Christopher Ohl, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, addressed hospital capacity on Jan. 31, when he gave the latest of his weekly live, online reports on COVID-19 topics.

Ohl said hospital capacity figures are a challenge because they’re impacted by staffing, which fluctuates.

Every time area hospitals say they’re at capacity, they’re able to find more space for patients when necessary, he quipped. “But it’s tight right now throughout the whole state.”

Ohl said hospitals in the Wake Forest Health Care system haven’t had to make any extreme changes in staffing or the way they provide care.

“We’re going to be able to handle anything one way or another. You just change how you do things. We’re going to be able to handle patients with COVID, but it’s just how much do you have to disrupt what you otherwise would normally do.

He said that because of surge planning, there have been few disruptions at Wake Forest Health Care facilities. “I won’t say non-existent…. I think we’re going to be able to handle it. You just do what you have to do to handle what you have to handle.”

Some elective surgeries across the state are being postponed to free up bed space as expected, he added, but emergency surgeries for conditions such as cancer are continuing.

Ohl is optimistic about 2021.

“I think that as we get into spring, the azaleas come out and it starts to warm up, the number of cases will come down and we’ll get more and more people immunized as more vaccine rolls out,” he said.

“I think as we get into summer, things will start to fill a little bit more normal. Hopefully by this time next year, we’ll be at the light at the end of the tunnel….”

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