Virus spikes have officials looking to shore up hospitals

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Hospitals across the United States are starting to buckle from a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, with several states setting records for the number of people hospitalized and leaders scrambling to find extra beds and staff. New highs in cases have been reported in states big and small  from Idaho to Ohio in recent days.

The rise in cases and hospitalizations was alarming to medical experts.

Around the world, disease trackers have seen a pattern: First, the number of cases rises, then hospitalizations and finally there are increases in deaths. Seeing hospitals struggling is alarming because it may already be too late to stop a crippling surge.

“By the time we see hospitalizations rise, it means we’re really struggling,” said Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University.

Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday the United States is seeing a “distressing trend” with COVID-19 cases growing in nearly three-quarters of the country.

“We’re seeing cases increase in really all parts of the country — in the Midwest, particularly — likely in part because people are moving indoors with the arrival of cooler temperatures,” Butler told reporters at a briefing at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

“Another factor is that smaller, more intimate gatherings of family, friends and neighbors may be driving infections as well, especially as these gatherings move indoors and adherence to face coverings and social distancing may not be optimal.”

Surges in coronavirus cases have led hospitals in Rocky Mountain states to raise concerns as their intensive care bed space dwindles. Utah, Montana and Wyoming have all reported record highs this week for the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. Seven of 10 intensive care beds were filled in Utah hospitals and about six in 10 in Montana.

In Nevada, where the economy relies heavily on the tourism industry, officials have stressed the need to maintain steady trends to bring back concerts and conventions that employ thousands on the Las Vegas Strip.

When Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, lifted the 50-person cap on gatherings on Oct. 1, he said he hoped to ensure safety while “preventing a rollercoaster of up and down cases that leads to uncertainty for meeting and convention and event planners.”

Now, amid an autumn surge in new cases, Nevada is among seven states with more than 8% of hospital capacity taken up by COVID-19 patients. Due to competing demands, particularly from flu season, 71% of the state’s hospital beds are occupied, the Nevada Hospital Association reported.

State officials worry that hospital beds will fill up if trends continue. Nevada reported 535 confirmed and suspected COVID-19 hospitalizations on Wednesday, up 19% from Oct. 1.

“One day is fine and you’re not at the capacity. A week later, you can be bumping up against your capacity for beds and for ICU units. Hospitals can then be teetering on the edge of having to turn patients away. We have to avoid that,” Sisolak said.

More than 40 million people around the globe have contracted the virus and more than 1.1 million people have died. In the United States, there have been more than 8 million confirmed cases and more than 220,000 deaths. The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases has reached nearly 60,000 — the highest since July.