‘Situation dire’ in hospitals as Delaware nears pandemic highs

A registered nurse prepares to enter a COVID-19 patient's room

A registered nurse prepares to enter a COVID-19 patient's room in the intensive care unit at Christiana Hospital. (Courtesy of ChristianaCare)

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Delaware health care leaders are sounding the alarm as record highs for daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are fast-approaching.

The virus’ acceleration over the last seven weeks led Gov. John Carney to have two executives at two of Delaware’s biggest hospital systems detail the challenges they face in trying to provide adequate care with beds full and long waiting lines in emergency rooms.

Sharon Kurfuerst, chief operating officer at ChristianaCare, the state’s largest system, said “the situation is dire” at Christiana and Wilmington hospitals, which are up to 115% of inpatient capacity depending on the day.

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“There are patients receiving care in hallways because that’s the only place we have to put them in the emergency department right now,’’ Kurfuerst said. “Our staffing is stretched and we are juggling supply chain and equipment needs every day in order to ensure we are providing care to patients.”

Last week, the state detected its first handful of the more transmissible omicron variant, but  Kurfuerst said the system is already nearing the breaking point.

“Our ability to continue to provide care is without a doubt threatened as the volumes threaten to increase” after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. “This is a balancing act every single day.”

Dr. David Tam, chief executive at Beebe Healthcare in Sussex County, spoke of meeting two adults while making rounds who begged him to be able to go and see their dying father together.

“It was heartbreaking for me,’’ Tam said. He and his staff were facing “moral distress. … The people here are just so sick and tired, patients as well as nurses and doctors.”

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Both Beebe and ChristianaCare have suspended non-urgent surgeries in response to the growing crisis, which is illustrated by statistics that are bleak and accelerating.

As of Tuesday, the weekly average of new cases was 749, a figure only surpassed during a two-week period in January, when it peaked at 846. The daily case average has more than  tripled in the last seven weeks.

Hospitals had 390 COVID-19 patients on Tuesday, but on Sunday that figure was 420. The inpatient totals for COVID-19 had peaked at 474 during the same two-week period in January.

The Delaware Healthcare Association, which represents Christiana, Beebe and other hospitals, has also issued a cry for help.

“Every day we’re seeing avoidable illness and death as a direct result of COVID-19,” the trade group said in a letter that’s being placed in newspapers statewide.

The letter questions why more people aren’t fully vaccinated or boosted a year after the shots first became available. It urges them to do so and wear a mask even if they are inoculated.

“How can we as a society stand by and watch people die when a simple shot could prevent a life-threatening illness?” the letter reads.

Roughly 70% of cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks have been in people who are not fully vaccinated, state records show.

Nearly 88% of Delaware adults have received at least one vaccination dose, but the figure among residents ages 18 to 34 is only 59%.

Vaccinations of minors are also lagging. For kids 12 to 17, 60% have received one dose. Among those ages 5 to 11, it’s just 20%.

Carney, who highlighted the statistics before turning the podium over to the executives during Tuesday’s briefing on Zoom, said he is closely monitoring the situation but has no immediate plans to reinstate restrictions on residents such as limits on indoor gatherings and mask mandates at stores.

Carney lifted all such rules in July when he ended the state’s 16-month State of Emergency with daily cases at 20 and only 14 in the hospital. The only remaining restriction is that face coverings must be worn in schools and government buildings.

The governor said that he would have to re-declare an emergency first, but also stressed that federal relief for businesses that would have to close or limit hours is no longer available. “Closing them would be devastating to them,’’ he said.

He also noted that “people are tired” of government-imposed mandates and restrictions, so he has chosen to continue urging people to get their shots, wear masks indoors, and get tested for COVID-19 if they are sick.

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