Coronavirus update: Hospitalizations in Pa. spike by 710 percent, but don’t panic

The number of hospitalized patients is more important than the number of positive cases because it speaks to the number one concern in the coronavirus crisis: capacity.

The number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in Pennsylvania spiked by 710 percent in one week, as the number of positive test results also climbed exponentially. 

There were 21 patients hospitalized throughout the state a week ago, and there were 170 hospitalized as of Thursday, according to Nate Wardle, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health

Of those 170 hospitalizations, 56 patients have been admitted to the intensive care unit and 32 of those patients have needed a ventilator, state health department Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said.

The number of hospitalizations and positive test results both had a sharp increase in the last week. Pennsylvania’s positive COVID-19 tests have increased from about 300 last week in a dozen counties to 1,687 cases in 48 counties as of Thursday. That includes an upswing of 560 new cases overnight.

The disease has killed 16 people in Pennsylvania, and 68 percent of them have been older than 65, Levine said.

While the health department noted that approximately 46 percent of the people hospitalized in Pennsylvania are older than 65 with chronic medical conditions, they’re not saying how many hospitalizations are in each county. 

“At this time, the majority of the cases are isolated to a few counties, and providing information for all counties would lead to some counties just having a few cases, which could lead to patient confidentiality issues,” Wardle said.

Why these numbers matter

The number of hospitalized patients is more important than the number of positive cases because it speaks to the number one concern in the coronavirus crisis: capacity.

We know that while there are enough ICU beds, ventilators and healthy medical workers to handle the number of coronavirus patients right now, state health officials and hospital advocates have also acknowledged Pennsylvania does not have enough beds, supplies and life-saving equipment to handle a surge of patients. 

“We still have a large capacity of ICU beds available, but we know that there will be a need for ICU beds for COVID patients as we see cases surge, but also for other health emergencies,” Wardle said. “This is why it is essential that people stay home and follow the guidance of Governor Wolf and Dr. Levine.”

The number of positive cases in each county is important to know because it shows us the spread of disease in those who are tested. But the number of hospitalizations in each county shows us how full our local hospitals are and whether they have room and supplies to properly care for us. 

That not only informs people who may have urgent health care needs, but it may also signal to people who are panicking and showing up to emergency departments with no symptoms that they should stay home. 

Gov. Tom Wolf, in line with recommendations from the nation’s leading doctors and his state health department, put social distancing measures in place to stop the spread of disease so that hospital systems are not overwhelmed with patients. That’s why businesses and schools have closed. That’s why we are told to stay at home. That’s why everybody’s life has changed. 

The governor is trying to save lives. He doesn’t want Pennsylvanians to contract the virus, but he also doesn’t want Pennsylvania hospitals to end up like New York hospitals. 

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In New York on Thursday, at least 100 patients died. Some of them died in emergency rooms while waiting to see a doctor. One of the deaths was a nurse at a Manhattan hospital. Many were patients who could not breathe and needed ventilators, according to CNN.

New York will now allow two patients to use one ventilator, a life-saving machine that helps patients breathe or breathes for them. 

How many people are being hospitalized in each county is a crucial piece of information  that can show in certain areas how important it is to stay home. These are the numbers that get people to change their behavior and stay inside.

Neighboring states of New York, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware are already providing this information. Delaware also provides a patient’s status, such as whether the individual is in critical condition or is in recovery. 

“Patient status is not something that is being reported to us by our hospital partners. There is a lot going on at both the public health and direct patient care levels, and we need healthcare workers to provide what we need, but to balance that with treating patients,” Wardle said.

Why you shouldn’t panic

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It can be scary to see a number like 710 percent and assume Pennsylvanians are getting sicker at an alarming rate, but some perspective is needed. 

Pennsylvania has maintained about a 10 percent hospitalization rate since the crisis took hold on March 6. There were 21 hospitalizations last week when there were about 210 positive cases. There are 170 hospitalizations as of Thursday when there were 1,687 positive cases. 

The 710 percent increase in hospitalizations is dramatic, but so is the increase in positive testing. 

You can also point to positives in the numbers. Some 90 percent of positive cases need no hospitalizations at all. Some don’t even have symptoms. The vast majority of COVID-19 carriers recover safely at home. 

Also, Pennsylvania has maintained its 10 percent hospitalization rate so far and may never reach the level of New York City, which has a 28 percent hospitalization rate and a bevy of harrowing images. 

What’s to come

At some point, that 10 percent number is going to be a lot more than 170 people, based on what has happened in areas where the disease spread before reaching Pennsylvania. Whatever that number is could be too much for hospitals to handle. The demand of patients is expected to eventually outstrip the supply of care. 

Hospital executives, Governor Wolf and state health officials all know that. They are all working together on a daily — and often times hourly — basis to solve that problem. That’s why you keep hearing the word “mitigate,” which means to make a situation less severe, serious or painful. 

It’s hard to find more beds, ventilators and protective supplies when several states, including the two biggest states in the country, are in desperate need of the same items. It’s hard to build new hospitals and find more beds in a matter of weeks. And you can’t cram four-to-12 years of medical training into a few weeks to add more doctors and nurses. 

“The biggest challenge in Pennsylvania is the same as other places – we have too few facilities to care for the number of critically ill if we have a surge in cases,” Wolf said. “And because this is happening so many places, we’re all competing for the same stockpile of materials. So, we’re becoming innovative. We’re retooling what we have within our borders to create what we need.”

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How Pennsylvania is planning for the spread of coronavirus Wochit

For example, the state is asking miners for their safety masks to be given to medical workers. And Pennsylvania manufacturers are being asked to start making ventilators.

But the best tool our state and medical leaders have to save lives right now is to make sure you don’t get the disease. And to do that, you need to stay home unless you absolutely need to go outside for an essential need like a trip to the grocery store, pharmacy or solo exercise. 

“Social distancing…it’s the only thing that will work. We must prevent people from contracting COVID-19,” Wolf said.

That 710 percent number doesn’t mean you need to fear the worst. But it does mean you still need to stay home. 

It’s too soon to know if social distancing has worked so far, but Wolf feels like most residents have answered his call. 

“Pennsylvanians are smart and they’re strong,” Wolf said. “When I asked everyone to stay at home, most complied. Pennsylvanians know their actions don’t just help themselves, they help everyone else. And I thank each and every one of them for doing their part during this crisis.”

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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