As COVID-19 Cases Soar, More Hospitals Report ICUs Nearing Capacity, With Worst To Come

More than a quarter of the nation's occupied ICU beds are being used for COVID-19 patients.

Hospitals across the nation are buckling under the surge in COVID-19 infections linked to the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, with some states reporting their intensive care units are rapidly filling with patients, much like winter’s wave of cases before vaccines were readily accessible.

More than a quarter of the nation’s ICU beds in use are currently occupied by COVID-19 patients, according to figures maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services. But an increasing number of states have said their intensive care wards are reaching capacity, with 1 in 5 ICUs at or over 95% full nationwide, The New York Times reported.

Public health officials from Hawaii to Mississippi, from Oregon to Texas have portended bleak statistics in the coming weeks, saying hospitalizations are already higher now than they were in January. Alabama said Tuesday it was out of ICU beds and was actually at “negative” capacity, and Oregon said hospitalizations rose 11% overnight as new cases soared.

“We’ve never been here before,” Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told the local NBC affiliate. “We are in truly now in uncharted territory in terms of our ICU bed capacity.”

Severely ill COVID-19 cases only add to the burden of wards already tasked with treating extremely sick patients. Coronavirus patients generally stay in the ICU almost twice as long as other ICU admissions, meaning ongoing waves of cases grow only more dire for full hospitals as people with new illnesses become sicker over time.

Last week, facilities across the South said they were reaching capacity in their ICUs as states with lower vaccination rates reported dramatic upticks in infections. Louisiana described the recent wave as the “darkest” in the pandemic thus far, and Arkansas said it had just eight ICU beds available (a figure that increased to 17 on Tuesday).

Texas hospitals last week began erecting tents outside their buildings to deal with a surge in patients, with some closing their emergency rooms and directing patients elsewhere.

The ongoing phase of the pandemic has frustrated health care workers who have described the outbreak as an affliction of the unvaccinated. Almost all of the nation’s deaths are among those who haven’t yet received a COVID-19 vaccine, and the threat of the delta strain has upended plans for any semblance of a return to normal.

Health care workers “are tired, and there is a level of frustration when you know the COVID patient you are caring for was not vaccinated and it was largely preventable,” Jason Chang, the chief operating officer at Hawaii’s The Queen’s Health Systems hospitals, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Vaccines remain the most effective way to prevent severe illness or death associated with the coronavirus, and all three authorized in the U.S. have shown to be highly effective against the delta strain.

Concern remains, however, for Americans who have yet to get an inoculation and for younger children who are not yet eligible for one. The Food and Drug Administration has authorized vaccines only for those 12 and older, raising concern about students who are just starting to return to classrooms.

The Times added Tuesday that the number of kids hospitalized for COVID-19 has topped 1,800 nationwide, and the number of new daily admissions are the highest they’ve been for children based on pandemic data going back to last October.