Featured image: A look inside the coronavirus-only field hospital by Cone Health (courtesy photo)

Area hospitals are running out of beds because due to an increase in COVID-19 cases, according to an email from Cone Health sent to Greensboro city officials on Monday.

The email from Ryan Blackledge, the director of government affairs for Cone Health, raised concerns about the hospital network’s lack of capacity to handle a continuing increase in COVID-19 positive inpatients.

“Just a few weeks ago, our data team had projected 150 patients hospitalized throughout the Cone Health system with COVID-19 by late December,” Blackledge states. “Today, we have 151 throughout the system, including 76 at our Green Valley Campus. These current numbers are alarming, especially given that we’ve not yet seen the expected increase from holidays and the cooler weather.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the number of currently hospitalized had risen to 154.

Cone Health — which is the largest healthcare network in the Triad after Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem — operates five area hospitals as well as its Green Valley Campus, formerly the Women’s Hospital, which was turned into a coronavirus-only facility at the beginning of the year. But even with a location allocated specifically for COVID-19 patients, the recent email from the hospital network sounds the alarm that beds are dwindling.

“Due to the sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 positive inpatients in recent weeks, we have reached the point where the Green Valley campus can no longer accommodate the majority of our patients with COVID-19,” Blackledge states.

Currently, the campus works with the most severe COVID-19 patients including those who are in severe acute respiratory failure and going forward, will prioritize bed space for only those patients, Blackledge states. Others who aren’t in as severe condition will be treated at other locations.

Blackledge goes on to state that hospital staff are planning for 260 COVID-19 patients on Christmas Day.

“We do not currently have that many beds for COVID-19 patients,” he states. “As of today, we can find beds for 249 patients throughout the health system based on staffing and room requirements to treat COVID-19 patients. We are working diligently to find and convert additional beds throughout the health system.”

Spokesperson Doug Allred, told Triad City Beat that Cone Health has a “number of contingency plans to expand if need be,” but did not provide any details.

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan posted snippets of the email on Facebook on Monday evening and said in an interview with TCB that the numbers are alarming.

“We have reached a crisis point when it comes to beds and hospital care,” Vaughan said. “Cone right now is considering whether or not they have to suspend elective surgeries. That is a very serious step. If Cone were to take that step again, it would have a negative impact on people’s healthcare overall.”

A portion of the email addresses the possibility of suspending elective surgeries.

“We are working closely with surgeons on which procedures could be delayed,” Blackledge states. “But we have not yet called for a hold on elective surgeries.”

Vaughan said that the fact that Greensboro has a COVID-only hospital should be a red flag to begin with. Currently, Guilford County is rated as a “red” county, the worst among three tiers of the rate of community spread for COVID-19. Red is classified as “critical” community spread while yellow means “significant spread” and orange is “substantial spread.” The metrics, which were established by the state Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS, earlier this month, take into account case rate, percent of tests that are positive and hospital impact within the county. Red counties have a high impact on county hospitals. Other area counties like Alamance, Davie and Yadkin are also classified as red.

The new state county alert system shows Guilford County and neighboring Alamance County as critical. (screenshot)

Nationwide, hospitalization numbers are increasing with the most recent data from the COVID Tracking Project showing that 96,039 people are currently hospitalized.

And although the county was only recently classified as “red” based on the state’s new metrics, Vaughan said that it’s felt like the city and county has been struggling for some time.

“We felt like we were in the red zone earlier than we were placed in the red zone,” she said. “The state needed to recognize that Cone Health implemented a hospital just for COVID. We were in a better situation than some other communities because of that, but we also wouldn’t have had those extra beds if we weren’t in a crisis. Green Valley is our field hospital.”

In Forsyth County, positive cases are also increasing, but the situation with the hospitals is not quite as dire as in Guilford County. Forsyth County Public Health Director Joshua Swift said county officials are in constant contact with both Novant Health and Baptist Hospital.

“Both systems have seen an increase in hospitalizations, and both have the capacity to handle additional hospitalizations,” Swift said in a statement to TCB.

Forsyth County is currently categorized as orange, according to the state’s new metrics, with a low impact on area hospitals.

“As more people are tested for COVID, we have seen more positive cases,” Swift said. “While this is to be expected, we have also seen an increase in the percent of individuals who test positive which means there is more community spread. Because of this, people must continue to be diligent to prevent the spread of COVID.”

On Nov. 20, Vaughan issued an emergency order for Greensboro that reinforces Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order requiring face coverings and reducing indoor occupancy. The order added warnings and subsequent fines for business owners who don’t follow the rules, but Vaughan said if numbers continue to rise, fines for individuals would not be out of the question. She also said she has the authority to issue another stay-at-home order but would rather shut down individual businesses for noncompliance rather than penalizing a whole industry.

“I think people are experiencing COVID fatigue,” Vaughan said. “We’ve been talking about coronavirus since March, and I think people are tired of hearing about the virus, and they are taking risks.”

Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines also issued an emergency order on Nov. 24. Unlike in Greensboro, Joines’ order targets individuals and gives police and fire employees the authority to issue citations for violations with a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a fine of $1,000.

“With the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, I’m taking this step to protect our citizens and ensure that our local businesses can remain open,” Joines said at the time. “I hope that all our citizens understand the importance of being ‘a team player’ and that we never have to issue a single citation. But at this point in the pandemic, we need another tool to ensure the overall safety of our city.”

Guilford County Public Health Director Iulia Vann said she’s not surprised by the recent metrics, but that she is concerned about the potential effect on area hospitals.

“We do not want to see all of our hospital resources being depleted by COVID-19, as this takes away from other illnesses and emergency situations,” Vann said. “We are all concerned that ever increasing case counts will tax our hospital systems of their resources, which will leave less for other ailments such as stroke, heart attacks and other emergencies. We never want to get into a situation where our hospitals have no beds available especially when COVID-19 can be greatly avoided if more people would follow the 3 W’s: wear a face covering, wait six feet apart and wash hands or use hand sanitizer.”

Across the state, hospitalization numbers are climbing according to DHHS numbers. The Triad region, which covers 17 counties including Guilford and Forsyth, is far outranking other regions. According to DHHS, the Triad region leads state hospitalizations with 553 of the 2,033 individuals currently hospitalized due to COVID-19, or about 27 percent. The Metrolina region, which spans the southwestern part of the state and includes populous counties like Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Stanly trail just behind the Triad with 516 hospitalizations. The Triangle counties of Wake, Durham and Orange are split up into three different regions according to the map.

The Triad region in light purple encompasses 17 counties based on the state’s map. (screenshot)

As data from the Thanksgiving holiday trickle in this week and more people plan on traveling for Christmas, Vaughan said that cases are likely rise.

“We know that people still need to shop,” Vaughan said. “But people can use curbside and delivery and that includes holiday shopping. We want to support local businesses. You can always buy a gift certificates, we can do a lot of things but it’s still the old message. It goes back to the three W’s.”

To learn more about state hospitalization data, visit the DHHS website here.

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