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Pa. hospitals are running out of ICU beds and health care workers as COVID-19 cases soar

With almost 5,000 Pennsylvanians hospitalized due to COVID-19, some hospitals are out of beds.

  • Brett Sholtis
Geisinger hospital in Lewistown, Mifflin County.


Geisinger hospital in Lewistown, Mifflin County.

(Harrisburg) — With nearly 5,000 Pennsylvanians in the hospital with COVID-19, intensive care units are full in some parts of the state. The long-feared milestone comes on a day with more than 11,000 new COVID-19 cases.

At Geisinger hospitals in places like Lewistown and Danville, doctors and nurses are adapting by treating some patients in emergency rooms and other areas of the hospital, said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jerry Maloney.

The supply of medical/surgical beds is also limited, Maloney said. “So our capacity in some of the hospitals approaches 100 percent and occasionally exceeds 100 percent.”

Geisinger hospitals serving rural communities in places like Lewistown and Danville have lower ICU capacity than some more populated areas—but some of these counties are among those with the highest rates of positive tests. Mifflin County, which includes Lewistown, has the the second-highest COVID-19 positive test rate in the state: 23 percent. The positivity rate statewide is about 12 percent.

Doctors and critical care nurses are available to make sure people get the level of treatment they need, Maloney said. However, health care workers are exhausted from long shifts and filling in for colleagues who are quarantined at home.

“It’s an extremely stressful job, and each staff member goes home exhausted knowing that they’re going to come in tomorrow to what may be a worse situation than what they left today.”

The state Department of Health has a plan in place to reduce the number of elective procedures in parts of the state where health workers are needed to treat COVID-19 patients, said Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.

Southwestern and southcentral Pennsylvania are the areas with the most urgent need for doctors and nurses, Levine said. She expects some hospitals in those areas to run short on workers next week. If that happens, it will trigger the plan to reduce elective procedures.

To be sure, some of those procedures may continue, at a doctor’s discretion, Levine noted. For example, someone in need of heart surgery or a tumor biopsy would still get those procedures even if they were categorized as elective.

“Hospitals do have the ability to manage their beds, and their capacity, and their staffing ratios,” Levine said. “And we are calling on them to do that, to make sure they have the capacity to take care of any COVID-19 patient or non-COVID-19 patient in urgent need of hospitalization.”

Levine urged people to follow precautions and download the COVID Alert PA app to learn more about personal risk exposure and contribute to the public health effort.

At Geisinger, Maloney echoed that message, telling people to prepare now to limit family gatherings during the holidays.

“Please wear your mask, and please refrain from gathering,” he said. “We’ve known from the beginning that that’s what works. We’ve known from the beginning that prevention is much easier, much more efficient and much more readily available than treatment and cure.”

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