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COVID-19 Hospitalizations At UIHC Reach New Peak, But CEO Says Beds Remain Available

Univeristy of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics sign
Jon Farvel / Flickr
The state's largest hospital is seeing hospitalizations for COVID-19 climb, but a top official is making clear that beds are still available and additional capacity can be created.

There are more patients hospitalized for COVID-19 at the state’s largest hospital than at any other point in the pandemic. But a top official at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is making clear there are beds available for patients who need care.

Last week, the UIHC had an average of 60 COVID hospitalizations, according to a hospital spokesperson. This week that average has risen to 90. And as of Wednesday, there were 93 patients hospitalized for COVID, out of some 850 total beds.

Briefing the Iowa Board of Regents Wednesday, UIHC CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said that due to measures taken to manage the surge, the hospital does have open beds and additional staffing capacity.

“The truth of it is, today at UIHC, regardless of what’s going on, we continue to create capacity and there are open beds today at UIHC. We are not overwhelmed,” Gunasekaran said. “But if we had not been working on creating this additional capacity we would be full.”

The needs for additional capacity entail not just the physical beds, but the highly trained staff.

“We have the assets, not just the beds, not just the equipment, not just the ventilators, not just the air handling, but really the talented faculty and staff that can be deployed in numerous configurations to really deliver safe care and appropriate care to Iowans during this pandemic,” he said.

Gunasekaran credited health care workers’ expanded telehealth capabilities and the hospital’s influenza-like-illness clinic for providing early interventions and remote monitoring of patients in preventing more hospitalizations.

Earlier on in the pandemic the ILI clinic served a few hundred patients a day. That number has now spiked to more than 1,000 a day.

“If we didn’t have this resource outside of the hospital I really do think UIHC would have been overwhelmed a long time ago with great consequence to the health care system in Iowa,” Gunasekaran added.

In an American health care system where hospitals are often run just shy of capacity during normal operations, every bed that is filled by a COVID patient takes away resources from patients who need care for heart attacks, strokes, cancer and trauma.

Experts say in a health care system collapsing under the weight of the pandemic, more patients will die preventable deaths, caused by conditions that would otherwise be treatable.

Like many essential institutions, the UIHC has seen some of its own staff sidelined due to their own infections. As of Tuesday, 18 UIHC employees were positive for COVID, with more than 1,000 having contracted the disease so far this year.

Under the hospital's policy, employees who are COVID positive cannot return to work until they are recovered. But due to staffing shortages, those who have been exposed but remain asymptomatic are being asked to continue working, so long as they continue testing negative.

As persistent and pervasive community spread of the virus has torn through every county in the state, infection rates of the deadly disease have skyrocketed. The White House Coronavirus Task Force has called the spread in Iowa “exponential and unyielding,” according to a report issued this week.

The uncontrolled spread is rapidly pushing the state’s hospitals and health care providers to the utmost limit of their capabilities.

Gunasekaran said a key motivation for the organization’s efforts to preserve capacity is to accept transfers of patients from outlying rural hospitals, which he says are maxing out their capacity “on a daily basis”.

As part of the first stage of the UIHC’s surge plan, the hospital has added 16 more ICU beds, for a total of 116. Gunasekaran said another phase of the plan will likely come by next week if conditions in the state “don’t radically change.”