Can our hospitals handle a surge?

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That’s a really tricky question to answer. We’ve seen alarms go up in New Orleans, where hospital staff are staring down a wave. The reality is that some hospitals run near capacity when there isn’t a pandemic around. That high floor makes it hard for hospitals to absorb a surge of new patients. They do have contingency plans — called surge plans — that anticipate things like a pandemic flu and the rush on resources that would result. 

“Every hospital has a surge plan,” says Patricia Parks Thompson, director of communications for Lafayette General Health. “They have temporary beds, the ability to expand into non-patient areas.”

A ProPublica report counts 1,720 hospital beds in a five-parish area around Lafayette. The average occupancy in that zone, called a Hospital Referral Region, is 59%, according to 2018 data analyzed by ProPublica. Roughly 15% of coronavirus patients will need to be hospitalized, according to some estimates, though that figure varies. Researchers are trying to forecast peaks in COVID-19’s spread to get ahead of what hospitals might face.

The number of people infected and how quickly that happens are the key. Suppose 20% of the Lafayette MSA (~620,000 people) get the infection. If that happens over 12 months or more, regional hospitals likely could manage it. The same number of infections over six months, however, would push hospital resources in Acadiana roughly 50% over capacity, ProPublica finds. 

Local hospital officials say they’ve been preparing for this. One advantage is that Lafayette, as the medical hub for the area, has not yet seen the rampant spread in other areas. They’re watching the strain on NOLA systems and prepping their own supplies ahead of time. Is that enough to weather a storm most believe is inevitable?

“Time will tell,” says Dr. Tina Stefanski, the region’s top public health official. 

Lourdes and Lafayette General have suspended elective procedures. The move lagged behind mounting calls to conserve medical resources over the last week.

Louisiana could exceed its hospital resources in 7 days. That was Gov. John Bel Edwards’ message to President Trump on a call broadcast this afternoon, based on worst-case scenario modeling. Congress is working on ways to ramp up medical resources in another stimulus bill, including what Senate Democrats call a “Hospital Marshall Plan.” Edwards has asked the White House to allow VA hospitals to take surge overflow to ease the burden. He warned in press conference later on that Louisiana could be on Italy’s track. With more than 3,400 deaths, Italy has officially overtaken China for COVID-19-related fatalities.

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About the Author

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, Gambit, and The Advocate.

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