Hospitals point to data to show they can handle surge in COVID-19 patients

Health experts say Intensive Care Units are being “challenged,” but appear to have the capacity to avoid being overrun.

ARKANSAS, USA — Data scientists and state public health officials say Arkansas hospitals continue to have the capacity to treat a surge of COVID-19 patients that are expected to be in need of treatment beds.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced 32 more patients went into hospitals for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus on Tuesday. That marked a new high for the state with 369 people in hospital.

But the data scientist for the Arkansas Hospital Association says its members are prepared.

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“Hospitals prepare all the time for these kinds of emergency situations and pandemics are not unusual in the course of medical history,” said Melanie Thomasson, the director of data for the non-profit trade association. “Hospitals around the state all have plans in place to be able to accommodate a lot more patients than we see on a daily basis.”

Statewide, Arkansas usually has about 9,000 hospital beds. The numbers get tighter when analyzing regions of the state. In the two most populated areas (and also the places with the most active cases), there appears to be capacity.

In the northwest Arkansas counties of Washington and Benton, there are nine hospitals with 1,019 beds, according to a survey by the Associated Press in 2018. Of those, 91 are considered intensive care beds.

In four counties that make up the most populated parts of central Arkansas, there are 16 hospitals with 3,254 beds and 219 ICU beds.

A daily statewide survey done by the Arkansas Dept. of Health indicates 16 percent of the state’s total hospital beds are being used by COVID-19 patients, but intensive care units are pushing capacity in some locations, but for another reason.

“We’re seeing demand, not only for COVID patients, but also for patients with other health needs that perhaps put off care earlier in the pandemic and may now be having more serious concerns,” Thomasson said.

The caution and concern came across in the governor’s Tuesday remarks.

“The system is not stressed in that sense,” said Gov. Hutchinson, a Republican. “But I don’t want to diminish the stress that is on the hospital workers.”

Adding to the stress for workers is the challenge of avoiding getting infected themselves.

“We have a lot of hospitals who themselves are impacted or have employees and staff who are impacted by COVID,” Thomasson said.

The hospitalization figures brought a sobering tenor to Tuesday’s daily press conference, with the state’s health secretary tempering any enthusiasm that might have risen from a day that saw only 259 cases added to the state’s total — the fewest number in weeks.

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“We’re getting more and more cases in younger age groups,” said Dr. Nate Smith, the head of the ADH. “We will see more people younger than the age of 65 who are admitted, and as the governor pointed out, most of the nine people who died today were all under the age of 65.”