But these techniques require resources, and they require close staff attention. Most importantly, they require room in the hospital to hold the patients. Kutner said her hospital expects this week to exceed its spring peak for coronavirus patients. Statewide, CDPHE says 82% of intensive-care hospital beds and 79% of acute-care hospital beds are currently being used — by people with coronavirus or other ailments.
“If we don’t have actual physical beds in which to put patients, that is not good for patient care,” Kutner said.
Hospitals also need the staff to treat all these patients. But as cases rise in the community, it takes a toll on staffing. Workers get sick, or they have to go into quarantine because they were exposed to a family member with the virus. Across the state, 17% of hospitals say they are expecting staff shortages over the next week, potentially hindering their ability to care for coronavirus patients and others.
“We are definitely seeing more staff and physicians who are also either getting ill themselves because of community spread or are having to quarantine,” Kutner said.
Hospital staffing shortages have gotten so bad in North Dakota that the governor on Monday announced an order allowing workers who are infected with coronavirus but asymptomatic to continue working in their hospitals’ COVID-19 units.
Officials in Colorado have not talked publicly about taking a similar step here. But the state has created crisis standards of care that guide hospitals in how to triage patients if overwhelmed, a situation that could leave some patients without life-saving care.
Public health restrictions aren’t just about helping people avoid coronavirus
Public health officials hope tighter restrictions will keep people from getting sick with COVID-19. But the reason for trying to suppress transmission of the virus isn’t just to help people avoid coronavirus. It’s also to make sure hospitals have the capacity to treat all the other people they normally see — people suffering from heart attacks, strokes, aneurysms, trauma and other life-threatening conditions.
So, even if new advances keep COVID-19 fatality rates low, a severe uptick in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations could result in more deaths from other causes. This goes along with the idea of thinking about the true toll of the pandemic in terms of “excess deaths” — how many more people die from all causes during the pandemic than you would ordinarily expect to see.
“While there’s this growing sense that (coronavirus) is maybe not as severe, there’s still a lot of implications,” said Dr. Eric France, CDPHE’s chief medical officer. “And as the hospitals fill with COVID patients, it makes it more difficult for our staff to take care of the everyday.”
COVID-19 can still be devastating even when it’s not fatal
As the pandemic has progressed, researchers have begun to learn all the ways that people who recover from COVID-19 haven’t actually returned to normal.
The virus can potentially cause long-term damage to the lungs and heart. The disease may frequently cause neurological injuries. A new study this week found that one in every five COVID-19 patients develop mental illness within a few months after infection, most commonly anxiety, depression or insomnia.
During a press briefing last month, Polis brought in COVID-19 survivors to share their stories. One, Kim Powell, a Denver nurse practitioner, talked of her life before coronavirus — of playing drums and singing in a band, of hiking in the mountains and sprinting up ridgelines. She contracted coronavirus in May.
“Today, anything more than a slow walk to the mailbox requires oxygen,” she said.
This is perhaps the most common argument from state health leaders about why it is important to reduce deaths as much as possible but it can’t be the only goal. Yes, you might survive COVID-19 and be just fine afterward. But why the heck would you want to try?
“This is more than survivability,” said Dr. Jonathan Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health. “I think we are learning that there are lasting long-term consequences of having severe COVID-19. So I wouldn’t take mortality by any means as a single marker for the impact.”
Every COVID-19 death is awful
Quite often, the coronavirus pandemic is an invisible tragedy. There is no official government list of those who die, for their names are protected by medical privacy laws. Their deaths mostly occur inside locked hospital wings.There are no community candlelight vigils for the lives taken because that would only risk spreading the loss further.
But, in a pale version of a memorial, there is Legacy.com, the large, online aggregator of obituaries, and the ability to conduct a keyword search. Typing in “COVID” or “coronavirus” for Colorado obituaries mostly yields notices specifying that masks must be worn at the funeral or that services have been postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic.
But, every now and then, there is a hint of who coronavirus has taken from us. A longtime city attorney and 60-year season ticket holder to University of Colorado football games. A great-grandmother to 15 who opened her own hair salon in her 30s. A grandmother remembered for singing songs of her own invention at family gatherings. All within the past month.
Kutner, the CU Hospital chief medical officer, said continued visitor restrictions mean that patients still sometimes don’t have their family by their side as they are dying. The last touch they feel is a nurse or a doctor holding their hand.
“We’re seeing people die without being able to be with their families,” she said. “It’s really hard on their families. It’s definitely hard on our staff, too, to witness that.
“We want to avoid that. We want to avoid people getting sick and having to die alone.”
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