As new cases of COVID-19 increase statewide, hospitalizations in South Jersey have surpassed peak spring 2020 numbers and will likely continue to climb as the state endures a second surge.
“I’m thinking January and February are going to be very unpleasant here in the hospital,” said Dr. Frances Loftus, a pulmonologist and associate chair of critical care at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center.
There were 943 reported hospitalizations across South Jersey as of Saturday, more than the previous peak of 913 on April 29, 2020, according to the latest data from the state.
Total hospitalizations across the state are down from the start of the pandemic last spring, with 3,638 reported as of Saturday. The North region continues to have the most overall hospitalizations at 1,513, followed by the Central region at 1,182.
According to The New York Times, which tracks availability of ICU beds based on U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data, AtlantiCare is at 85% capacity, Cape Regional Medical Center is at 80% capacity, Shore Medical Center is at 76% capacity and Inspira Medical Center Vineland is at 71% capacity as of Jan. 4.
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Loftus said some citizens who don’t work in hospitals may think the impact of the virus has lessened over time, but that is not true.
“Some people have been lulled into the security that we can stay open and it’s not as bad as it was in the spring,” she said, adding they may be getting lax on social distancing and other safety precautions such as masks and handwashing.
She said that while she expects many more COVID-19 cases in South Jersey this winter, the situation is not as bad as in places like Southern California, where it was reported last week that some hospitals are close to rationing care to patients.
“We are not there. Let’s hope we never get there,” she said.
Amy B. Mansue, president and CEO of Inspira Health, said all the hospitals in South Jersey have been working with each other to combat the virus and provide patient care.
“We really need people to hold on for this last period of time and keep doing the right things,” Mansue said. “If the spread continues as it has been, it just makes it that much more difficult to do.”
Mansue said the hospital system, with campuses in Vineland, Mullica Hill and Elmer, is not out of beds and is seeing many more patients without COVID-19 than those with the virus. She said they are expecting a surge in the next two weeks due to gatherings associated with winter holidays.
Mansue said it’s not the availability of beds but hospital staffing that has presented issues across the state.
“We’re going to be stretched when we get to those highest levels,” she said, noting that hospitals can no longer borrow staff from other parts of the country due to the high volume everywhere across the United States.
Nurse Irma Ruiz-Albino, 25, who works in the respiratory care unit at AtlantiCare’s Mainland Campus in Galloway Township, said that because of the rise in hospitalizations, nurses have been taking on more patients.
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“So we’ve had to be smarter about that,” she said.
Ruiz-Albino works 12-hour shifts, and although she is scheduled three days a week, she usually works four or five days to help out.
“I’m really proud of my unit, because we’ve stepped up,” she said.
A difference between now and the spring, besides the rollout of the vaccine, is the availability of personal protective equipment and the scientific knowledge on how to diagnose and treat the virus.
“We have really taken a situation that in the beginning was very scary and new, and we didn’t have a lot of information. And we have used this to really fine tune our processes,” Loftus said.
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Although deaths associated with COVID-19 are down, Loftus urged the community to take the virus seriously as it can have lasting effects on a person’s health.
“One of my colleagues made a statement one day that ‘not dead doesn’t mean healthy,’” Loftus said, noting that some patients who contracted the virus ended up on feeding tubes permanently, were on oxygen for months or continue to experience neurologic or respiratory impairments.
“I did have patients who developed seizures, young patients who were asymptomatic develop blood clots,” she said. “People just have to understand that you may not die from this, but being on dialysis for the rest of your life is not a pretty picture.”
Health officials stressed that despite the uptick in coronavirus cases, it’s important for area residents to seek medical care when needed for any illness, not just COVID-19.
“We don’t want people not coming in. We saw that the last time. We saw people saying they had chest pains for weeks but not addressing it because of fear of having COVID,” Mansue said. “Hospitals are safe, and we want you to come if you need to be there.”