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Nebraska hospital officials worry about surge in patients

January 18, 2022 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska hospital officials are expressing concern about how they will handle the current surge in virus hospitalizations along with all their other patients as COVID-19 cases continue to increase dramatically across the state.

“There is no doubt we are still in one of the darkest times of the pandemic,” Nebraska Hospital Association President Jeremy Nordquist said.

The state reported an average of 76 new hospital admissions a day last week, which was 36% higher than the week before. The total number of hospitalizations hit 643 on Monday, which was down slightly from Friday’s peak of 675 but well above last month’s low of 445 set on Dec. 25.

Both of the state’s largest cities imposed mask mandates last week in response to the rising cases, although the state has filed a lawsuit challenging the mandate in Omaha.

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The number of virus hospitalizations across Nebraska is expected to grow significantly over the next couple weeks and could rival the all-time high of 987 set in November 2020. The surge in hospitalizations is already forcing hospitals to keep some patients in emergency rooms while waiting for beds to open up, and it has made it harder to transfer patients from smaller hospitals to larger ones.

At the same time hospitalizations are increasing, hospitals are dealing with staff shortages because their employees are out sick or quarantining with COVID-19. Officials at CHI Health said roughly 400 of its 11,000 employees at its 14 hospitals in Nebraska and western Iowa are currently out sick.

Last week, the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha announced that it was beginning to use its crisis plan to ration care and preserve hospital resources. It said outpatient surgeries would be further restricted, outpatient appointments and testing may be rescheduled and transfers from other hospitals will be limited. The state also ordered that hospital to further restrict surgeries because it is using its crisis plan.

Another one of the state’s largest hospitals, Bryan Health in Lincoln, hasn’t started using its crisis plan yet but officials there have been shifting staff around as needed to help with patient care and restricting surgeries that require an overnight stay and transfers to help keep beds open.

But even with those efforts, Bryan had 20 patients waiting in the emergency department for an inpatient bed on Monday and another 19 patients on a waiting list to transfer to the hospital.

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“We’re using every contingency available to us to manage patient flow,” said Bryan’s Vice President of Medical Affairs Dr. John Trapp. “It’s a very fluid time; this could change very quickly.”

At Box Butte General Hospital in Alliance, CEO Lori Mazanec said her staff has been having to call 40 to 60 hospitals to transfer a single patient, which means a delay of 24 to 36 hours before that patient can get advanced care.

“Because our big hospitals are full, it has a rippling effect on our smaller hospitals,” said Mazanec, who has also seen COVID-19 cases at her hospital in the Panhandle double from Jan. 3 to Monday.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Nebraska has more than doubled over the past two weeks from 1,733.57 new cases per day on Jan. 2 to 4,055.14 new cases per day on Sunday.

The number of cases the state reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also jumped 85% last week to 27,987 for the week that ended Thursday, which is the most recent data available. Nearly 27% of the tests reported to the state last week were positive.

Hospitalizations tend to lag a week or two behind changes in case numbers, so patient numbers are expected to continue increasing in the weeks ahead.

“We have a long haul ahead of us over the next four to five weeks with COVID in our state,” Nordquist said.