Coronavirus hospitalizations reach record levels in U.S., could lead to rationed care

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The U.S. is closing out 2020 with record numbers of coronavirus hospitalizations, which could lead to rationed care for some Americans in the coming weeks, particularly if there’s a surge related to Christmas season gatherings. 

CNN reported that coronavirus hospitalizations hit a pandemic high-water mark of 121,235 patients on Dec. 28, according to the COVID Tracking Project. That includes an increase in ICU coronavirus patients from 16% in September to 40% last week, with health experts anticipating a “surge on top of a surge” due to holiday-related activity. There’s even concern among some health officials that hospitals may need to make difficult choices regarding staff capacity and vital equipment like respirators in the coming weeks. 

“When you run out of capacity, physicians and bioethicists in these hospitals will need to decide which patients are salvageable — potentially salvageable — and which patients aren’t,” CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner warned.

At Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles, Hospital CEO Dr. Elaine Batchlor conveyed her strategy to help her staff deal with the possible increase in patients. 

“We use what in the battlefield is called triage techniques, which is doing an assessment of each person’s needs and prognosis and using scarce resources with patients that are most likely to benefit from them,” she told CNN. That article described an already-dramatic transformation of the hospital, including five tents set up on the hospital grounds — with one used as a waiting room — and even the hospital’s chapel and gift shop utilized for patient care. 

Six states set COVID-19 hospitalization records Dec. 27: Alabama, California, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Texas reached its highest level of hospitalizations on Dec. 28 with 11,351, topping a record set in July. Former state health commissioner David Lakey, in a Dallas Morning News article on the record, described the impact on hospitals as “almost universal across the state.” Over half the state’s 22 main population centers have high enough hospitalization rates to trigger an automatic order of restaurants and businesses to operate at half-capacity. 

Because of Christmas-related gatherings and increased travel, a number of health officials expect the situation to worsen in the coming days. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, expressing concerns about hospital systems in the next few weeks, said, “If you put more pressure on the system by what might be a post-seasonal surge because of the traveling and the likely congregating of people for the good, warm purposes of being together for the holidays — it’s very tough for people to not do that.”

The Washington Post article quoting Fauci noted that air travel hit a pandemic record in the previous weekend, and with New Year’s Eve looming, the CDC is issuing warnings about the festivities that typically accompany that annual tradition. 

“The safest way to celebrate the new year is to celebrate at home with the people who live with you or virtually with friends and family,” the CDC said in guidance posted on its website. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.”

Sources: CNN [1], [2], Dallas Morning News, Washington Post

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