Tired to the bone

AP – Overwhelmed hospitals in the United States (US) are converting cafeterias, waiting rooms, hallways, even a parking garage into patient treatment areas. Staff members are desperately calling around to other medical centres in search of open beds. Fatigue and frustration are setting in among frontline workers.

Conditions inside hospitals are deteriorating by the day as the coronavirus rages across the US at an unrelenting pace and the confirmed death toll surpasses 250,000.

“We are depressed, disheartened and tired to the bone,” said Johnson City Medical Center Director of Critical Care Alison Johnson, adding that she drives to and from work some days in tears.

The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 in the US has doubled in the past month and set new records every day this week. As of Tuesday, nearly 77,000 were hospitalised with the virus.

Newly confirmed infections per day in the US have exploded over 80 per cent over the past two weeks to the highest levels on record, with the daily count running at close to 160,000 on average. Cases are on the rise in all 50 states. Deaths are averaging over 1,155 per day, the highest in months.

The out-of-control surge is leading governors and mayors across the US to grudgingly issue mask mandates, limit the size of private and public gatherings ahead of Thanksgiving, ban indoor restaurant dining, close gyms or restrict the hours and capacity of eateries, stores and other businesses.

Medical staff wear protective equipment in a unit dedicated to treatment of the COVID-19 at UW Health in Madison. PHOTOS: AP
Hospital beds inside Renown Regional Medical Center’s parking garage, which has been transformed into an alternative care site for COVID-19 patients

New York City’s school system — the nation’s largest, with over one million students — suspended in-person classes on Wednesday amid a mounting infection rate, a painful setback in a corner of the country that suffered mightily in the spring but had seemingly beaten back the virus months ago.

Texas is rushing thousands of additional medical staff to overworked hospitals as the number of hospitalised COVID-19 patients state-wide accelerates toward 8,000 for the first time since a deadly summer outbreak.

In the worsening rural Panhandle, roughly half of the admitted patients in Lubbock’s two main hospitals had COVID-19, and a dozen people with the virus were waiting in the emergency room for beds to open up on Tuesday night, said Lubbock County Health Authority Dr Ron Cook.

“We’re in trouble,” Cook said.

In the Texas border city of El Paso, overwhelmed morgues have begun paying jail inmates USD2 an hour to help transport the bodies of virus victims. The crush of patients is forcing the city to send its non-COVID-19 cases to hospitals elsewhere in the state.

Over 5,400 extra medical personnel have been deployed around Texas by the state alone, said Texas Department of State Health Services spokeswoman Lara Anton.

And that does not include the help surging into Texas from the military and volunteer organisations.

“There are only so many medical personnel to go around,” said Food and Drug Administration’s former head Dr Mark McClellan.

Ballad Health system, which is located in the Appalachian mountains and includes the Tennessee hospital where Alison Johnson works, has warned that it and its workers are stretched so thin that without a change in course, its hospitals might have to turn patients away. Ballad reported having just 16 available ICU beds on Wednesday and about 250 team members in isolation or quarantine. It is trying to recruit hundreds more nurses.

In Idaho, doctors warned that hospitals have almost reached the point where they need to ration care, unable to treat everyone because there aren’t enough beds or staffers to go around.

“Never in my career did I think we would even contemplate the idea of rationing care in the US,” said St Luke’s Health System Chief Medical Officer Dr Jim Souza.

In Reno, Nevada, Renown Regional Medical Center began moving some coronavirus patients into its parking garage.

Video of the converted garage before it opened to patients showed rows and rows of beds separated by moveable white screens set up on one level of the stark, cavernous garage, each section designated by letters and each bed space marked by a number on the ground.

The garage unit currently houses 27 patients but at peak capacity will have enough beds to accommodate over 1,400, said Renown’s Chief Medical Officer for Acute Care Dr Paul Sierzenski.

In Kansas, hospitals are converting spaces such as cafeterias for use by COVID-19 patients, said Kansas Hospital Association spokeswoman Cindy Samuelson.

Stormont Vail Health in Topeka, Kansas, devoted an entire hospital floor to COVID-19 patients as their numbers swelled, hitting 90 on Wednesday.

The hospital also converted two surgery waiting rooms for use by non-infected patients, spokesman Matt Lara said.

Kansas Health Chief Dr Lee Norman said a system that he likened to air traffic control for coronavirus patients is being put in place so nurses from rural hospitals can make a single call to find a larger hospital that can take their sickest patients.

In some cases, nurses and doctors in Kansas have been spending up to eight hours looking for a large hospital with an opening in cities as far away as Denver, Omaha or Kansas City.

“The problem with this is, by the time you transfer these patients out they already are very ill at that point,” said Kansas nurse practitioner Perry Desbien.

At the same time, patience is wearing thin over the lack of mask wearing that is contributing to the problem in rural areas. “It kind of feels like we’re just, you know, yelling into the abyss,” said Cheyanne Seematter, a registered nurse at Stormont Vail. “We keep telling everybody to stay home, wear a mask, that it is actually bad here.”

Maryland health officials similarly set up a centralised clearinghouse with information on available ICU beds so that hospitals need only make a single phone call. State authorities also issued an emergency order prohibiting most hospital visitors until further notice.