The intensive care unit at Mercy Regional Medical Center was at capacity this week – not because all the beds are in use, but because the hospital does not have sufficient staffing to care for more ICU patients, according to the hospital’s president and CEO.
Hospital capacity, including access to ventilators, COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment, has been one of the nation’s primary concerns as it grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. While Mercy is at capacity for ICU beds, it is not at capacity for ventilators and can provide care for sick patients, with or without COVID-19, CEO Mike Murphy said.
“We have 23 ICU beds, however, due to our ability to staff those – find the ICU nurses and have them here – we’re actually at capacity today,” Murphy said Tuesday during a virtual presentation to the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
During the presentation, Murphy said only five or six patients were in the ICU for COVID-related treatment, while others were there for non-COVID care. Mercy did not provide more specific information about how many of the 23 ICU beds were filled.
The hospital is not experiencing a surge, and Murphy said the hospital still has surge capacity to expand to 23 ICU beds if needed. In April, Murphy said the hospital could increase capacity from 82 total beds in the hospital to 160 beds.
Staffing and increased need are the primary challenges, Murphy said in the presentation.
“We continue to scour the entire state and beyond to find additional ICU nurses,” Murphy said.
Mercy did not respond to further questions about its additional staffing requests, when more staff could arrive at the hospital or how the ICU would respond to a surge. Mercy spokeswoman Sarah Silvernail said Murphy was unavailable to answer further questions Wednesday and Thursday morning.
The rates of new COVID-19 cases in the region are increasing. In recent weeks, most states have shown either steady or exponential increases in the number of COVID-19 cases, which puts more strain on supplies and medical capacity.
In Mercy’s health care region, which extends from Cortez to Pagosa Springs and north to Montrose, new cases have also increased. For weeks, the region had about one to 1½ new COVID patients per day, but the case numbers began to increase around June 25. In the first week of July, the rate increased to 5.3 patients per day. Last week, it was 5.7, Murphy said.
As of Thursday, La Plata County reported 150 COVID cases and Archuleta had 16, according to San Juan Basin Public Health.
Along with the COVID-19 increase, other patients are coming in with more serious health care needs, Murphy said. Mercy can care for sick patients, but the combination of serious COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 cases makes intensive care a challenge for the hospital, Murphy said.
The hospital has ventilators on hand, which provide vital care for patients with serious respiratory issues caused by COVID-19. However, ventilator use continues to increase, which Murphy said was “alarming.”
“This is the highest level we have seen in the entire pandemic period,” he said.
Durango City Council expressed concern about the staffing challenges and discussed ways to increase mask use Tuesday during a City Council meeting.
“Every other hospital in the whole (network) needs those same nurses,” said Councilor Kim Baxter. “It’s looking kind of interesting.”
Councilors discussed options like mandatory mask zones and face-covering checkers at major retail stores. On Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis issued a mandatory, statewide face-covering order, which goes into effect Friday.
“It’s not looking good,” said Mayor Dean Brookie. “More importantly than ever, face masks are critical to our survival and our ability to keep our businesses open continuously.”