Updated Jan 12, 2022 - COVID

D.C.-area hospitals say they’re stretched thin

Illustration of a red cross that has the red drained out of it.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have all declared public health emergencies to help hospitals better manage demand driven by a surge in COVID-19 cases, but hospital associations across the region say they’re still stretched thin.

Driving the news: On Tuesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a limited public health emergency until Jan. 26, citing a rise in COVID-19 cases, hospital visits, and medical staff shortages.

  • This comes after pleas from the D.C. Hospital Association in a letter last week. The mayor's order Tuesday allows "DC Health to modify procedures, deadlines, and standards authorized during the declared emergency."
  • It comes a day after Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency, which, similar to earlier on in the pandemic, relaxes some regulations, such as allowing hospitals to increase bed capacity and allowing certain providers, such as physicians assistants, to expand their practice.

By the numbers: Virginia continues to eclipse previous hospitalization records, with 3,681 daily hospitalizations of COVID-19 positive patients as of Monday, a nearly 300% increase since Dec. 1, 2021, the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association tells Axios.

What they’re saying: Expanding beds is “well and good,” says Julian Walker, vice president of communications at the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, but staffing issues remain a big challenge as hospital staff, often in the line of fire, become infected or exposed themselves.

The Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association does not have data on how many staff members are currently isolating.

  • “We need to have staff who are on duty and available to tend to patients who may be in hospital beds,” Walker says. Staffing challenges have caused some hospitals to scale back on non-emergency operations, much like early on in the pandemic, which Walker says could mean a financial hit for hospitals.
  • “In 2020, Virginia hospitals, our hospital members, lost a collective $1.8 billion in revenue associated with the pandemic … and seeing a decline in overall hospital service utilization,” he says.

Virginia health leaders have urged people with moderate COVID-19 symptoms to not visit the emergency room to avoid inundating hospitals; D.C. health officials made the same plea last week.

The big picture: The Maryland Hospital Association’s president and CEO Bob Atlas told Axios in a statement that Maryland’s hospitals are “virtually full,” with occupancy of acute care and ICU beds averaging 94%.

  • Thirteen hospitals, which are more than one-fourth of non-acute care facilities, are operating under crisis standards of care. According to Maryland’s coronavirus dashboard, 3,364 hospital beds were in use by COVID-19 patients as of Sunday, eclipsing a previous peak of nearly 1,900 beds last January.
  • Maryland, like Virginia, has a state of emergency that relaxes some regulations to ease hospital demand, but Atlas says hospitals still have to stretch their workforce.
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