Pa. coronavirus update: Officials brace for possible shortage of hospital beds, medical staff

Registered nurse Virginia Petersen works on a computer while assisting a COVID-19 patient

In this Nov. 19, 2020, file photo, registered nurse Virginia Petersen works on a computer while assisting a COVID-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Ask us about COVID-19: What questions do you have about the current surge?

As some Pennsylvania hospitals stare down a shortage of intensive care beds, state health officials are again urging residents to follow coronavirus pandemic guidelines.

Speaking at a virtual press conference on Thursday, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said basic mitigation efforts, including face masks, regular hand washing, and staying at home whenever possible, will help keep hospitals fully staffed and under capacity.

“There are not an unlimited number of hospital beds. But even more importantly, there are not an unlimited number of staff — doctors, nurses, support staff, EMTs,” said Levine. “The people who make our healthcare system work are relying on you to do the right thing.”

More than 5,000 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19 in Pennsylvania. More than 1,000 more are in intensive care units across the state.

On Monday, Philadelphia health officials said COVID-19 hospitalizations had jumped 48% in less than two weeks.

“We have seen that a number of counties in Pennsylvania have only a few intensive care unit beds left or actually no intensive care unit beds left in their county,” said Levine.

Last week, the Department of Health issued a new order requiring hospitals to temporarily cut in half the number of elective surgeries they are performing — if they can check off three metrics.

Those metrics are: a third or more of hospitals in the region anticipate staffing shortages in the next week; COVID-19 admissions in the region have increased by more than 50% over the last 48 hours; and less than 10% of the region’s staffed medical/surgical beds are anticipated to be available for patients in the next 72 hours.

At the moment, no region in the state has triggered the new order.

The state is now reporting several thousand new positive cases of COVID-19 each day. In September, daily case counts were often below a thousand.

To date, Pennsylvania has reported more than 386,837 positive coronavirus cases, according to the state’s health department.

“We are certainly not through this yet and we cannot return to life as normal right now,” said Levine. “We need to stay strong and we need to stay united and work together for the common good.”

Putting a clock on the city’s pandemic protocols

City Councilmember David Oh introduced legislation on Thursday that would put a 60-day time limit on any of the Kenney administration’s COVID-19 restrictions. Under the measure, the administration would need approval from City Council to extend restrictions past that period.

“While the executive branch rightly has certain powers during an emergency, we are now well into this crisis and there is not a consensus on how to move forward,”  said Oh in a statement. “These orders — whether it be to close a gym or a restaurant — are unprecedented exercises of power that deserve a proper system of vetting and approval.”

The legislation does not restrict the mayor or health commissioner from crafting and implementing emergency measures. It only gives Council the ability to prevent them from remaining in effect for an “unspecified” period of time without justification.

“There needs to be a system of checks and balances in a democracy,” said Oh.

In a statement, mayoral spokesman Mike Dunn said the administration has not seen the councilman’s proposal yet, but added that Philadelphia’s COVID-19 restrictions are tailored “to have the greatest impact with the least amount of disruption.”

“And it is important to note that the Councilman’s premise, that the Order’s not be permitted to extend for undefined periods, is false when it comes to that latest Safer at Home protocols,” said Dunn. “Those are clearly time-limited and extend to January 1, 2020, subject by review by the Health Commissioner and our other medical experts.”

In response to a surge in positive coronavirus cases, the city’s department last month announced a new set of pandemic restrictions. The order, which took effect Nov. 20, bans indoor dining at restaurants, closes gyms and libraries, and prohibits social gatherings among people from different households.

On Thursday, Philadelphia reported 825 confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 69,515 since the start of the pandemic. More than a third of that total has come since the start of October.

Another 15 people have died from the highly-contagious virus, bringing the total to 2,005. Nearly half of those were long-term care facility residents.

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