As Oklahoma’s coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to break records this week, some hospital and health leaders in the state’s largest cities say the rate at which hospitalizations are growing is not sustainable and the system is becoming strained.
The number of Oklahomans hospitalized for the new coronavirus reached an all-time high on Wednesday. Data released from the Oklahoma State Department of Health showed 638 patients, compared to the previous high of 562 on March 31. In the last month, hospitalizations have more than tripled — from 197 on June 17 to 604 on Thursday.
Statewide, there were 2,481 beds, including 168 intensive care unit beds, available as of Wednesday. Gov. Kevin Stitt and Interim Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye this week continued to tout the state’s hospital capacity.
But some hospital officials told The Frontier they were at or near capacity, and officials and health experts said the influx of patients has started to stretch the state’s hospital capacity, and the trends are not sustainable.
Lauren Landwerlin is the executive director of corporate communications for the Saint Francis Health System, which operates several hospitals in Tulsa and across the state. In early June, there were about 17 positive patients per day in the health system. This week, that number was in the high eighties.
The concern about increased hospitalizations reaches beyond the hospital system’s walls, Landwerlin said.
“The current daily increases we are seeing in admissions will soon be unsustainable if we — as a community and a region — are not able to slow down the community spread and transmission of COVID-19,” she said in an emailed statement.
During a news conference on Wednesday, Interim Commissioner Frye said the state’s hospitals are better prepared to handle a coronavirus patient surge than they were in March. Since then, hospitals have established surge plans and secured more protective equipment for health care workers, he said.
“We went from our crisis mode to now we’re in a risk management mode,” Frye said. “We’re assessing the data daily. I’m talking to the hospital association and the hospital CEOs. They’re all assuring me that we have capacity still, that we’re doing well.”
Frye said though the increase in cases in Oklahoma and across the U.S. is “very concerning,” the state has “the COVID hospital beds waiting for them (patients) if they need them.”
The state has contracted with two hospitals to serve as surge facilities if needed. Frye said Wednesday that while the Oklahoma City metro area hasn’t had to use its surge beds, Tulsa has.
But as new cases and hospitalizations surge, Dr. Dale Bratzler, the University of Oklahoma’s chief COVID officer, said the state’s hospital capacity is starting to become strained.
“In Oklahoma City in particular, ICU beds are becoming a premium, and I know that Tulsa has seen a substantial increase in the number of people who are in the hospital and intensive care units,” Bratzler said on Friday.
Capacity isn’t only about beds, he said. Adequate staffing is vital, as well.
“I think people have been led down the pathway of thinking we have lots of surge capacity. … We’re starting to run out of ICU beds, and our hospital beds are much fuller than they were,” Bratzler said.
In Oklahoma City, INTEGRIS Health is at capacity or near capacity in all of its facilities, a spokeswoman told The Frontier on Friday. Throughout INTEGRIS, 101 patients are confirmed to have the virus and another 16 patients are under investigation.
INTEGRIS opened another campus last week to care for COVID patients after other locations neared capacity.
“Due to capacity constraints we have transferred patients to some of our other facilities, both patients with and without COVID-19,” Brooke Cayot said. “Additionally, we reached out to other health care systems in the metro to coordinate transfers in accordance with the State’s COVID-19 surge plan.”
Hospitals continue to need capacity for patients who need intensive care for conditions unrelated to the coronavirus. The two patient populations could be competing for hospital resources, said Gary Raskob, chairman of the Oklahoma City-County Board of Health.
“The important message from this is we can’t wait until we get to 100 percent and say OK we have to deal with it,” Raskob said during a streamed city council briefing Thursday. “Because COVID is not the only thing that brings people to the hospital and for whom intensive care, other hospital care is needed.”
Dr. Cameron Mantor is the acting chief medical officer for OU Medicine, which operates several hospitals in the Oklahoma City metro area. He said the health system is able to take in and care for COVID and non-COVID patients without altering operations for now, but that could soon change.
“Our census is going up and it is getting close to where we will have to enact our surge plan,” Mantor said.
Dr. Kersey Winfree is the chief medical officer for SSM Health St. Anthony, which operates hospitals across the state, including in Oklahoma City. He said hospitals are starting to see an uptick in coronavirus patients, but the biggest threat to capacity is having sufficient resources to care for other patients, as well.
Though Winfree said he is “very concerned” with the rate at which hospitalizations are increasing, SSM Health is “nowhere near” activating its surge plan.
Still, as cases continue to surge, the state is in a position where it needs to slow the spread of the virus. Winfree urged people to wear masks, wash their hands regularly and practice social distancing.
“We watched these cases increase and knew reasonably early on that this was beyond what we thought we’d see just with increased testing,” Winfree said.