Ballad Health officials project the number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus in their hospitals could near or surpass the 500 mark in the next two weeks as the number of new weekly infections continues to increase week-over-week.
“We could be, within the next week, between 445 to 640 patients ...” said Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton, “and then the week after that we could be between 479 and almost 700 inpatients ... if the same trajectory continues.”
The hospital system was treating 408 people with COVID-19 as of Thursday, nearly a quarter of whom were in intensive care. There were also five children hospitalized with COVID-19 — all of whom are in Niswonger Children’s Hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit.
Another 281 people were being treated through Ballad’s safer-at-home program, bringing the total number of people with COVID-19 under the system’s care to 689.
And while the number of inpatients fell for the first time in five days, Thursday saw yet another record number of critical care patients under the system’s care, with 102 people in the ICU and 78 on ventilators. The unvaccinated and partially vaccinated accounted for 93% of total hospitalizations, 97% of people in the ICU and 96% of those on ventilators Thursday.
“The sad part about this is it doesn’t have to be happening,” Deaton said. “If people could take the vaccine, we know that it works — we see that 95-plus percent of people in the hospital have not been vaccinated. If you get the vaccine, it works. There are minor side effects with it, and we do know that it saves people’s lives.”
In an email Wednesday afternoon, Dr. David Kirschke, medical director of the Northeast Regional Health Office, said “we are really seeing an epidemic of misinformation, which is tragic.”
“We had the chance to prevent so many of the cases and deaths, but many people received inaccurate or misleading information not based on our best science and public health experience from years of eliminating or eradicating vaccine-preventable diseases,” Kirschke said, calling the surge a result of “perfect storm of a more transmissible variant, lower than optimal vaccinated rates and a decrease in prevention measures like mask use.”
“Fortunately, we still have the opportunity to protect our communities by doing what has been proven to work — getting vaccinated and following public health recommendations like wearing a mask indoors in public,” he continued.
Kirschke called the situation heartbreaking, and said he believes “we can do better as a community to protect our elders and other vulnerable persons, to keep kids safer in school, and to relieve the pressure on our hospital workers, who are stressed to the breaking point physically and mentally.”
Ballad currently has more than 1,400 inpatients across its facilities, well above the typical census of around 1,100. Deaton said it’s the highest inpatient census he can recall in his three-plus years with Ballad, noting the stress the surge has placed on the hospital system with roughly half of staffed ICU beds occupied by virus patients.
Deaton said the hospital system’s current surge planning goes up to about 510 inpatients, and said any further increase would likely require the stoppage of other outpatient services such as therapies, though he noted there’s only so much that can be done before there is simply no more staff or space available to treat people. The system’s scarce resource policy has not been implemented.
“We’re not there yet, but we continue to be concerned that we are treading into waters we have not been before,” Deaton said, “and beyond 515 (inpatients), it gets very, very difficult for us to care (for those people properly).”
Ballad’s in-house modeling projects the COVID-19 inpatient census will rise to between 444 and 642 inpatients on Sept. 18, increasing to somewhere between 479 and 692 on Sept. 25. The modeling has, in recent weeks, consistently remained above the low-end estimates but below the high-end, meaning it’s likely inpatients will track closer with the middle estimates of 518 inpatients on Sept. 18 and 560 on Sept. 25.
Asked if the speed and size of the surge had surprised him, Deaton said it had.
“We thought we were on the downhill, we were getting through it and I think we all felt that way, we were getting back to normal in a lot of ways,” Deaton said. “I remember a year ago, we were so anxious to get the vaccine because that was going to take care of this, and we were so excited about getting that and getting it for our community (so) that we would not have to be where we are today.
“Nobody thought we would be at 40% vaccinations,” Deaton said. “I think I even said I thought we would be over 50, 60, maybe even 70% vaccinations — I just thought our community would embrace it, because we knew it was something that was going to work, and so I think we’re extremely surprised by where we are today and it’s overwhelming for us because we know we can overcome this quickly if people just do the right thing here.”