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FOX43 Reveals: Pa. hospitals see record numbers of COVID-19 patients

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Pennsylvania has tripled in the past month.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — As coronavirus cases surge across the nation, Pennsylvania is seeing more patients hospitalized with COVID-19 than in the spring.

Nearly 10,000 deaths in the Commonwealth have been linked to the coronavirus. FOX43 Reveals how health care workers are feeling overwhelmed as hospitals see record numbers of COVID-19 patients.

Joyce Sciandra, a nurse in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, said fatigue and frustration are setting in as ICU beds are filling up with COVID-19 patients.

“In our hospital right now, we had an old critical care unit. They had to open that up. There are 12 beds there. Then, they had to open an old ICU unit and there were 10 patients there last time I looked," Sciandra explained.

Coronavirus cases are raging across the state at an unrelenting pace. Sciandra said it feels as if the hospital’s COVID unit is bursting at the seams.

“This is the most I’ve ever seen and it’s like closing in. We feel like it’s closing in on us,” Sciandra said. “Every time we’re there, I’m looking in the ER and I could see that there are three more or four more [patients] coming in and there’s no place to place them right now. They’re even talking about opening another unit to take the influx, but the staffing is also a problem too.”

Sciandra said Wilkes-Barre General Hospital has not seen a shortage of personal protective equipment or other supplies, but many nurses, doctors and other hospital staff are falling sick with the virus. 

As of November 21, nearly 14,000 of the state’s total coronavirus cases have been among health care workers, according to the Department of Health.

FOX43 Reveals that the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Pennsylvania has tripled in the past month. The latest numbers from the Department of Health show approximately 3,379 people are in the hospital with the virus.

It is the highest number we’ve seen throughout the pandemic. On April 27, the state peaked in terms of hospitalizations with 2,800 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, a department spokesperson said. Those hospitalizations occurred at a time when much of the state was under a strict lockdown and stay-at-home orders were in place.

A spokesperson for UPMC tells FOX43 Reveals that they have seen an increase in COVID positive patients needing hospitalization in recent weeks. However, because of improvements in treatment, fewer patients need ICU care and UPMC remains fully able to care for all patients, with or without COVID-19, a hospital spokesperson said.

As of November 23, there are 23 patients in ICU level care across Penn State Health hospitals, which is about 22% of their current COVID-19 inpatients. Capacity remains in the health system's ICUs, but part of their extensive planning for COVID-19 is making arrangements and staging locations, should the need for additional spaces for patient care arise, a hospital spokesperson said.

Those plans involve coordination of intensive care units, operating rooms, and the conversion of regular patient rooms into rooms capable of intensive care activity, such as negative pressure isolation, if necessary. 

Penn State Health also has plans in place to address potential staffing concerns, which includes training staff across various units to ensure hospitals can appropriately staff all of their critical care units amid a dynamic situation.

Penn State Health has a public dashboard that is updated every Monday through Friday with the number of hospitalized patients at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Penn State Health St. Joseph and Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center. You can see the dashboard on their website and it also includes the number of patients in ICU care and on ventilators. 

A spokesperson for Lancaster General Health said their health systems and ICU capacities are busy, but not full. You can find all of their COVID patient data on their website.

Many Geisinger hospitals, including Geisinger Lewistown Hospital, are operating at critically high occupancy rates. Because of this, hospital staff are activating plans made in the spring to create adequate staffing and bed capacity by evaluating staff and bed capacity daily, according to hospital spokesperson Malini Mattler. 

Mattler said those plans are all about managing the dimmer dials, like scaling back surgical procedures by 15 percent. Doing so limits the inputs to manage surges that the state is currently seeing and determines surgical availability on a rolling two-week schedule. 

Despite COVID intensifying in our communities and our hospitals, Mattler said Geisinger hospitals continue to use learnings from the first wave to get predictive. Staff built a playbook in the spring and are now running the plays to ensure they treat non-COVID illnesses in a safe environment.

As of midnight Monday, there were 217 patients with COVID-19 admitted to Geisinger hospitals, 42 of whom were admitted at Geisinger Lewistown Hospital.

WellSpan Health does have ICU bed capacity at each of their hospitals, but a spokesperson notes that hospitalizations are rising at a very steep rate. As far as staffing, much like in the spring, the health system is confident they are able to redeploy and reassign team members to other departments, shifts or locations when needed.

In a statement, WellSpan spokesperson Ryan Coyle said:

"We currently have ICU capacity across our health system for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients alike, and we also have the ability to double ICU bed capacity at each of our hospitals if the need were to arise. 

As hospitalizations continue to increase, we need everyone to understand the seriousness of the situation and take steps immediately to slow the spread of COVID-19. Practice social distancing and limit in-person interactions. Wear a mask or cloth face covering. Wash hands thoroughly and often. These are simple steps, and critical steps, to ensure that our health system can continue to care for all of our patients."

As of November 22, 775 coronavirus patients are in the ICU and 371 coronavirus patients are on ventilators, data from the state show. The statewide positivity rate for the week of November 6 through November 12 stood at 9.6 percent. An explosion of new cases caused the Wolf Administration to issue new mask mandates and travel restrictions.

Sciandra said following state guidelines is the single most important step people can take to help not only themselves, but their health care heroes.

“It’s devastating for us sometimes. When we see these people taking a turn for the worst and you’re trying everything. Every single angle and you see it’s not working and then you have to make that call to that family member,” added Sciandra. “It’s going to be the worst holidays ever, for all of us. For everybody—families, patients, nurses, doctors, communities, but we have to get through it so we could see the next holiday.”

FOX43 Reveals issues that affect you and your family to keep you informed. Do you have a tip that needs to be investigated? Or documents you want us to look into? Send us a confidential email at FOX43reveals@FOX43.com.

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