Many Hospitals are Nearing ICU Capacity. Why is This a Critical Situation?

Nearly everyone is aware that the COVID-19 health crisis is causing a significant strain on the hospital capacity in areas all across the nation. With confirmed cases of the deadly virus surging almost everywhere, hospitals are being overloaded with new patients needing critical care. While some of these patients will be in and out with little treatment, the most severe of the hospitalizations will require extensive care in the ICU.

As a result of the soaring COVID-19 cases, ICUs are becoming quickly overwhelmed to the point that many patients are having to be diverted to other medical facilities. Additionally, the patients in the ICUs may not be receiving the recommended level of care. Here is what happens when a hospital's ICU unit is stretched to the brink.

Staff Shortages

The first element of concern when hospitals become overun is a shortage of qualified staff members. Healthcare workers put themselves in harm's way every time they go to work. Even with the best personal protective equipment, they run the risk of contracting the virus. As healthcare workers get sick, staff shortages begin to become a serious problem.

This is why the frontline healthcare workers are the first people on the list of priority to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Once these workers are vaccinated, the hope is that there will be fewer staff shortages to contend with over the coming months.

Additionally, as patient numbers balloon, it often becomes necessary for staff members to spread out and cover units that they may not be as familiar with. With ICUs nearing capacity, the hospital may need to pull nurses and other staff members from different floors to cover the influx of patients.

Space Constraints

In addition to staff shortages, many hospitals are facing space constraints. The first line of defense in preventing this from happening is the decision to cancel all elective procedures. Many medical facilities all over the country have already instituted these policies in an attempt to keep space available for critical COVID-19 patients.

Some of the most harrowing scenes include hospitals with patients lined up in the hallways because there is no space left in the rooms. Many municipalities have been forced to construct temporary field facilities as hospital numbers surge. While these facilities are certainly better than having to turn people away for care, it still does not provide the same level of critical attention that a traditional hospital will deliver.

Fewer Supplies

Every hospital has a finite supply of ventilators and other lifesaving tools. With too many patients coming through the doors, these supplies become limited, compromising the quality of the care that doctors are able to provide. Early in the pandemic, many medical facilities did not have the proper personal protective equipment that they needed to safely care for patients. While these supply issues have mostly been resolved, there are still clinics that are grappling with a limited amount of ventilators.

Concerns with Quality of Care

Lastly, there are significant concerns regarding the quality of care that some patients are receiving as a result of the overload. Some of the hardest-hit states have already had to make the tough decisions about how to ration care to save the most number of lives.

For example, some hospitals are deciding how to allocate ventilators on the basis of a patient's expected outcome. This usually means that younger and healthier patients will be prioritized to receive the ventilator and more extreme measures of care.

As doctors and nurses are spread thin, the quality of care will naturally drop. Most hospitals allocate one individual nurse for each ICU patient. However, during this time of crisis, nurses in the ICU unit are being forced to care for multiple patients at the same time. While they are doing their best work, it is only natural for the quality of care to drop when all of the attention cannot be devoted to just one patient.

Once you understand how the ICU shortage may affect the quality of care that patients receive on all levels of treatment, it becomes clear that the nation must do a better job mitigating the spread of the virus. Everyone will suffer if hospitals become stretched too thin.

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