DENVER — It's an urgent plea from hospitals and health officials coping with a surge in COVID-19 patients: They say Colorado is at "a pivotal juncture," and that "everyone needs to step up and fully participate in mitigation tactics to ensure the state's health care system doesn't get overloaded."
Last week, Gov. Jared Polis said, "these are our darkest days as a nation, they are our darkest days as a state."
With 1,417 COVID-19 patients now hospitalized, Polis has asked hospitals to increase their COVID-19 bed capacity by 50%, to handle the surge.
"We want to make sure that everybody who contracts COVID has a fighting chance of making it through," he said.
Hospitals are responding.
"We're increasing the number of beds needed for COVID patients on a day to day basis," said Dr. Jean Kutner, the chief medical officer at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. "We've expanded now into our third Intensive Care Unit."
Stephanie Sullivan, assistant vice president of media relations at HealthOne, said "COVID-19 preparedness efforts include reinforcing infection prevention protocols and guidance from the CDC, sourcing necessary supplies and equipment, and surging staff and ICU capacity so we are able to care for our COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, as well as to protect the health and well-being of our colleagues."
The HealthONE system includes North Suburban Medical Center, Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, Rose Medical Center, Sky Ridge Medical Center, Swedish Medical Center and The Medical Center of Aurora.
Sullivan said to date, HealthONE has taken care of more than 2,600 COVID-19 inpatients and wll continue to provide exceptional care for the non-COVID-19 patients as well.
Currently, the HealthONE hospitals are caring for 205 COVID-19 positive patients, and 66 of those patients are in the ICU, Sullivan said. Those numbers can be juxtaposed with HealthONE's peak day in April when the hospitals were caring for 226 COVID-19 positive patients, and 109 of those patients were in the ICU.
Kutner said UCHealth is seeing more COVID-19 patients now than last spring, "and we're caring for all the other patients who need care."
She said they've been able to handle things so far, system-wide.
The UCHealth System includes UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital in Longmont, UCHealth Broomfield Hospital and UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital, as well as a network of emergency rooms and urgent care facilities along the Front Range.
Statewide, hospitals have activated the Combined Hospital Transfer Center, which starts out at Tier 1.
"You can think of Tier 1 as essentially a buddy plan," said Julie Lonborg, of the Colorado Hospital Association. "We've paired up all the hospitals throughout the state. If a rural hospital is having their first COVID surge, and they end up with more patients than they have resources for, they can call their buddy hospital and effect a transfer quickly and easily. It's kind of one call does it all."
She added that physicians at receiving hospitals can help the smaller hospitals with "medical experience."
Lonborg said there are 10,293 licensed beds in the state.
"Many times we've been focusing on counting ICU beds," she said. "The good news is we're less dependent on ICU beds now than in the spring, because we've learned more about how to care for these patients. We're ventilating fewer patients and length of stay is down, because we're able to care for these patients in a more efficient manner, and return them back home for the rest of their convalescence than we were in the spring."
When asked if she can see light at the end of the tunnel, Lonborg said the surge shows no sign of leveling off yet.
"We know we've got two really, really tough weeks in front of us," she said. "That's why we're so concerned with Thanksgiving to be honest. Because if people get together, rather than seeing that leveling off, we may see this continuing to climb."
As a result, some hospitals are starting to limit visitation again or restrict it totally.
The surge in COVID-19 patients, and visiting restrictions are all happening about the same time that hospitals are facing a staffing shortage.
"Our staffs are getting sick," Lonborg said.
Last spring, a number of Coloradans went to New York, New Jersey and several other states, to help them cope with their patient surges. The hope was that when Colorado experienced its surge, those states would send reinforcements.
Dr. Kutner said that may not happen because so many parts of the country are seeing huge patient increases at the same time.
"Because they're surging across the nation, we absolutely cannot rely on bringing in volunteers from other states. Every state needs every staff member they have," she said.
Lonborg said Colorado nurses are being recruited by organizations in other states, that are willing to pay more.
So hospitals are pleading for the public's help, especially over holidays.
"I know it's Thanksgiving week, and I know we're getting tired of this, but we all need to follow the social distancing guidelines, wear masks and wash our hands," Kutner said. "That will help us get through this together."