Hospitals brace for expected COVID-19 patient surge this weekend

Hospitals in North Jersey — the region of the Garden State hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic — are bracing for an onslaught of patients that experts say could hit this weekend.

“We’re really facing an unprecedented surge of patients,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital in Newark.

Elnahal says his medical center is dealing with 180 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more that are suspected. He’s deeply concerned by the statistical models forecasting that coronavirus hospitalizations could peak in the coming days — a surge that could require nearly 900 more ICU beds statewide.

“The surge has already started and we’re seeing an acceleration of cases in admissions,” he added. “So I would not be surprised if the peak came this weekend, or even a few days after that.”

“The numbers are going up,” he added. “We have not yet seen a plateau here at University Hospital.”

Elnahal’s main worry isn’t actual beds or even equipment. He says he’s got enough protective gear and ventilators, for now. What he lacks is sufficient staff able to care for critically-ill COVID-19 patients.

“We have the most concerning staffing ratios I’ve ever seen in health care happening right now,” he added. “I don’t think we’re alone in this, but it’s something that keeps me up at night.”

Dr. Adam Jarrett, the chief medical officer at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, a town where 540 residents are infected, shares the same worry.

“The biggest issue is critical care nursing,” he said.

The medical center’s already got more than 200 patients — its largest census count ever — and he anticipates a surge at his hospital, in the middle of Bergen County, where nearly 9,000 have been infected and 390 have died.

In all, as of Friday, 54,588 in New Jersey have tested positive for COVID-19 and 1,932 have died.

State data also shows that the state’s hospitals are treating 7,570 for COVID-19, 1,663 of them on ventilators. The state is also reporting that 682 COVID-19 patients were discharged over the last 24 hours.

During his daily press briefing, Gov. Phil Murphy highlighted the number of those who have been treated and released from hospitals as a glimmer of good news.

“So that’s an important point to note,” he said, calling it “another piece of evidence that we are at least beginning to see some light here.”

For those at Holy Name and other hospitals in the region, though, the trends remain sobering.

“We’re a little bit busier every day,” Jarrett said. “We don’t think we’ve seen the flattening of the curve, although the rate of rise has slowed a bit. But we don’t think we’ve seen the flattening of the curve yet. And we’re very concerned that we have not seen many nursing home patients.”

The coronavirus is ravaging New Jersey’s nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, where almost 3,400 have tested positive, 5% of residents. Jarrett is anticipating a wave of those older, vulnerable patients.

He also said Holy Name recently added critical care capacity that will be operational by Sunday.

“We have a new 35 bed pop-up ICU that will be open as early as Sunday,” he said. “That is in a conference room space that was built after 9/11, built for just this type of situation. We’ve never used it for something clinical before, and we had to do some retrofitting, but it will be ready to go.”

Ten miles to the south, at Hudson Regional Hospital in Secaucus, additional staff had been onboarded in anticipation of the surge. With nearly 6,500 cases in Hudson County, the hospital’s repeatedly had to go on divert status, when its emergency room gets too overwhelmed to handle more admissions. Other medical centers in the northern part of the state have had to make the same call during the crisis.

“The hospital’s volume just quadrupled,” said Dr. Nizar Kifaieh, Hudson Regional’s CEO.

Kifaieh said his facility has seen many instances where patients wait too long before coming to the ER.

“And they get sicker and sicker at home, before they come to the hospital to ask for help,” he said. “And that’s a concern, because some of those patients literally arrive into the emergency department and minutes later they code.”

Meanwhile, in anticipation of the wave of patients, 75 ambulances now sit parked at MetLife Stadium.

“We have 50 basic life support ambulances as well as 25 advanced life support ambulances staging up at the Meadowlands MetLife Stadium, under leadership of the New Jersey EMS Task Force,” said Col. Patrick Callahan, superintendent of the State Police on Friday.

The governor says social distancing will flatten the curve, eventually. But for now the numbers keep going up.

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