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ICU capacity stretched in Kent and Sussex counties due to surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Hospitals in Kent and Sussex counties are strained by coronavirus cases, according to an NPR analysis of federal data. Hospital administrators say they are adapting and still able to meet patient needs.

NPR’s analysisof Department of Health and Human Services and University of Minnesotadata found that hospitals in Kent and Sussex counties are among the 59% of hospitals nationwide under high or extreme stress from the current surge in patients hospitalized with the coronavirus. 


On average, hospitals in Sussex County were under “extreme stress” from COVID hospitalizations last week, according to NPR, with 21% of beds occupied by COVID patients. Kent County was under “high stress,” with 19% of beds occupied by COVID patients.


NPR reports that hospital capacity experts consider a ratio above 10% concerning. Stress levels in the analysis are based on a framework developed by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Since last week, COVID hospitalizations in Kent and Sussex counties have only grown. On Sept. 9, the last day NPR included in its averages, 87 people were hospitalized with COVID in Sussex County and 52 in Kent County, according to the Delaware Division of Public Health. Sept. 13, the most recent day with published data, Sussex had 102 hospitalized COVID patients, and Kent had 53. 


Beebe and TidalHealth, each with a location in Sussex County, have suspended elective surgeries requiring overnight stays. Bayhealth, with a location in both Kent and Sussex, has not yet done so. 


NPR found the ICUs in Bayhealth’s Kent and Sussex hospitals were both 99% occupied last week.  


But Dr. John Fink, vice president of medical affairs and quality at Bayhealth, says patient care is not suffering—as the hospitals are using flex space to expand ICU capacity. 


“We have other adaptable spaces in the facility that we can float some people to for staffing purposes,” he said. “The rooms and everything’s set up, and the care that they get there would be exactly as it would be in the main ICUs.”


Fink says Bayhealth is not considering transferring patients to less crowded hospitals in New Castle County, where NPR found 6% of all beds occupied by COVID patients on average last week, and ICUs 75% full. Fink says Bayhealth continues to evaluate the need to delay some non-emergency procedures. 


NPR found 27% of beds at TidalHealth Nanticoke in Seaford were occupied by COVID patients on average last week, compared to 15% at Beebe Medical Center in Lewes—where the ICU averaged 94% full. 


COVID-19 Medical Director at Beebe Dr. William Chasanov says occupancy fluctuates daily, but admits the hospital is “busy.” 


“We have an absolute obligation to make sure that we have the resources to take care of our community and patients,” Chasanov said. “That is one of the reasons that we have decided to hold back on certain elective procedures, to make sure that we have the staff to take care of everyone in our hospital. … That is a strategic move to ensure that our team members are not overwhelmed.”


An investigation by The News Journal found staff shortages at Delaware hospitals—particularly ChristianaCare and Bayhealth—are causing burnout among nurses and concerns about patient safety. 


Chasanov notes the majority of people hospitalized with the coronavirus are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated—and urges Delawareans who have not already done so to get the vaccine.  


“These are primarily unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated community members that are using the hospital resource,” he said. “That's probably the biggest message we can send.”


Overall, Sussex County has Delaware’s highest vaccination rate, with nearly 65% of people age 12 and up fully vaccinated. But many ZIP codes in the western part of the county have rates significantly lower. 


Kent County has the lowest overall vaccination rate of any county in Delaware, with 54% of people age 12 and up fully vaccinated. In New Castle County, that figure is just under 63%.


This story has been updated.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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