Two weeks after Colorado’s first case of the new coronavirus was confirmed, the state still doesn’t have a count on the number of ventilators at its hospitals. And, as hospitals are beginning to see an influx of patients believed sickened by the virus, they are also racing to figure out which rooms can be converted into makeshift intensive-care wards.
In a statement Wednesday, the Colorado Hospital Association said many hospitals have moved to a “surge response” after seeing “a marked increase in the number of patients presenting with respiratory illness who need hospitalization and further testing.” Julie Lonborg, a spokeswoman for the association, said one hospital expects by the end of the week to have 150 patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. She did not specify the hospital.
The CEO of Vail Health sent out an email Wednesday to community members warning, in dire language, of the wave that could soon hit his hospital.
“The truth is, if we don’t commit to disciplined social distancing now, our 56-bed Vail Health Hospital will be overflowing within 2-4 weeks,” CEO Will Cook wrote. “We will not have enough respirators to keep people alive, and locals of all ages will be dying.”
The warnings come as hospitals and state health officials are still trying to identify the resources they have to fight back against the virus. Lonborg said a data system to compile the state hospitals’ resources in a single place was launched last week. Hospitals have been inputting their total number of beds and intensive-care beds.
But she said tracking the number of ventilators — critical to the treatment of the most severe cases of COVID-19 — is more difficult.
“These are smaller pieces of equipment that can be moved and stored,” she said. “In a big facility, you’re literally going room-to-room, floor-to-floor and counting where they all are.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis said while the state does not have a central registry of ventilators, hospitals should soon have “fairly accurate estimates.” Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, told reporters on a call Wednesday afternoon that the state will have “a more clear sense” of the number of ventilators and available intensive-care beds by the end of the week.
“We are actively working and surveying our health care partners to get that information,” Herlihy said.
Lonborg said hospitals are also assessing their space to see what can be converted into wards to treat COVID-19 patients, including intensive-care and isolation rooms. With elective surgeries shut down in many hospitals, pre-operative spaces and surgery centers have become likely targets. And hospitals are looking to see in which rooms patients could be doubled up.
Lonborg said hospitals are also talking with state officials about being allowed to operate over their licensed bed counts.
“We appear to have a state administration that is willing to work and tackle all of these things,” she said. “Which is great.”
The burdens are playing out differently at hospitals across the state. In an interview on Tuesday, Denver Health emergency physician Dr. Stephen Cantrill said the hospital is starting to be “pretty stressed” by the number of patients it is seeing with respiratory illness. But he said it hasn’t reached critical levels.
“We’re doing OK so far,” he said.
But the state’s limited testing capacity has begun to hamper hospitals’ response.
Longborg said hospital beds are increasingly being taken up by patients who cannot be discharged back to a nursing home or long-term care center because they do not have a test result confirming that they don’t have COVID-19.
Officially, as of Wednesday evening, only 26 people in Colorado are hospitalized with COVID-19. But Lonborg said hospitals are seeing a rise in patients they suspect have COVID-19 but they can’t get the test results to confirm.
In his email, Vail Health’s Cook said it has been taking three to five days to get test results “and it’s getting worse.” There are 400 tests locally awaiting a result, and Cook said Eagle County health authorities expect many of them to be positive. The hospital is sending in an average of 70 samples per day for testing, and Cook said there may be thousands of people infected with the virus in the Eagle River valley.
“The results are trickling in, and an inaccurate picture has been painted,” Cook wrote in his email. “Regardless of the number of confirmed cases, we are experiencing significant community spread.”
Cook said Vail Health has already sent some severely ill patients to hospitals in the Denver metro area. But once metro area hospitals are full, there will be no place for those patients to go. And that’s what prompted his stern warning for everyone in Vail Health’s region to lock down their lives.
“Everything non-essential has to stop or close for now,” Cook wrote. “It’s going to be hard and feel wrong on many levels. But, it’s supposed to be hard because we are fighting a war of life and death right now. Not tomorrow, but now. It’s time to wake up. Sacrifices must be made, or we will lose people we know and love.”
Staff writers Jason Blevins and Jesse Paul contributed to this report.