Hospitals across the country running out of beds, reducing surgeries amid latest COVID surge

One of Pennsylvania’s largest health systems is running at 110% capacity, with clinicians practicing “waiting room medicine” on patients who are forced to endure 10- to 20-hour delays in the emergency department.

Geisinger Health System executives said last week the system has run out of inpatient and ICU beds across its nine hospitals.

"It's putting strain on the overall healthcare system and infrastructure, not just at Geisinger but across our communities, our regions and across the country," Geisinger's president and CEO Jaewon Ryu, M.D., said during a news conference last week.

The hospitals are overrun with largely unvaccinated COVID-19 patients who represent a quarter to well over half of all admissions, Ryu said.

"COVID continues to rage on, and we're seeing significant upticks in volume and activity," he said, emphasizing the urgent need for state residents to get vaccinated. "It's probably worse than it was last year."

Essie Reed, M.D., an emergency physician at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, said some ER physicians are practicing "waiting-room medicine," diagnosing patients with perforated bowels and running lab work, while some COVID-19 patients receive oxygen in crowded hallways.

RELATED: With COVID-19 resurging, New York halts electives at 32 hospitals to preserve capacity

"This is not how we want to be practicing medicine. We are begging you to get vaccinated," said Reed, who also serves as Geisinger's director of emergency medical services.

"We're almost two years into this, and it still feels like every day is a crisis when we go to work, We are always waiting for the Jenga tower to fall, and we never know when that’s going to come. It’s very defeating. We live in two parallel worlds where we get into the ring and get beat up at work, and we live in the outside world where society feels that the pandemic is behind us and is going on with their daily lives," she said.

An average of 4,875 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized across Pennsylvania as of Dec. 11, marking a 24% increase over the last two weeks, according to data from The New York Times. The state was also averaging 8,000 new cases Dec. 11—a 37%  jump over the last 14 days.

Geisinger isn’t the only health system under strain.

In Rhode Island, an ongoing staff shortage compounded by the latest pandemic surge has prompted some hospitals in the state to adjust operations, including limiting some elective surgery. 

The state's largest healthcare system, Lifespan, has curtailed some elective operations, and—along with recruiting efforts to fill openings—is exploring the use of National Guard medical personnel, The Providence Journal reports.

Massachusetts is ordering hospitals with limited capacity to reduce non-urgent procedures, like hip replacements, by 50% starting Dec. 15. The guidance, issued Dec. 10 by Gov. Charlie Baker's administration, updates a Nov. 23 order that required hospitals to reduce elective procedures by 30%

The state guidance is intended to give hospitals dealing with "critical" staffing shortages and an influx of patients more flexibility to ensure sufficient acute care capacity," according to a press release from the administration.

The daily average for COVID-19 hospitalizations nationwide was more than 65,000 of Dec. 11, a 23% increase over the last 14 days, according to The New York Times. As for cases, the U.S. is averaging about 119,000 new infections per day, a 40% rise over the last two weeks. 

Cleveland Clinic last week announced it was postponing scheduled nonessential surgeries requiring a hospital bed at Ohio hospitals, with the exception of Lutheran Hospital, through Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. 

"We continue to see rapidly increasing inpatient volumes and patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across our Ohio hospitals," the health system said in a statement.

RELATED: Massachusetts calls on hospitals to reduce elective procedures amid staffing shortages

Earlier last week, 32 New York hospitals facing low capacity due to increased COVID-19 were ordered to halt elective surgeries scheduled for Friday or later, state officials confirmed Monday afternoon.

In Michigan, U-M Health and Michigan Medicine announced last week that they have begun canceling scheduled surgeries due to the recent wave of COVID-19 cases, which they say has strained the system and affected patient care.

U-M Health has reduced its surgical volume by 20%. “We just don’t have the beds. This week alone we’ve canceled more than 40 cases,” said David Miller, M.D., president of U-M Health.

“The bottom line is that the surge of COVID-19 is putting others at risk and keeping us from delivering life-saving care,” said Marschall Runge, M.D., Ph.D., CEO of Michigan Medicine, in a statement.

"People are dying at home all across the state and the nation because [Michigan Medicine and other hospitals] are full. People have died and will die, of non-COVID-19 disease in our area and across the nation. COVID-19 is overrunning our hospitals," said Runge, who also serves as dean of U-M Medical School and executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Michigan. 

Maine Gov. Janet Mills announced last week that she has activated members of the National Guard to help hospitals across the state facing a continued surge of COVID-19 patients.

Maine Medical Center in Portland is postponing 50% of nonemergency surgeries as the hospital converts six operating rooms to make room for more patients.