ICU Beds In SE Iowa Rare, Staff Shortages Increases, Burlington Hospital Warns

By Elizabeth Meyer

November 21, 2020

The number of Iowans hospitalized due to COVID-19 has doubled in the last few weeks, forcing hospitals like West Burlington’s Great River Medical Center to implement emergency procedures in order to prepare for a surge in patients that exceeds its current capacity.

At the start of November, 718 people in Iowa were hospitalized with COVID, according to Iowa Department of Public Health data. Today, that number exceeds 1,400. More than 200 patients in the last 24 hours were admitted to hospitals due to COVID.

On a Zoom call Friday hosted by the Greater Burlington Partnership, executives at Great River Health updated community leaders and the public on how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting local hospitals. Great River Health operates Great River Medical Center in West Burlington, Fort Madison Community Hospital and several clinics in Southeast Iowa.

“We are at a capacity crisis regionally right now,” said Michael McCoy, a physician and chief medical officer at Great River Health. “Region 5 hospitals have all agreed and are preparing for a surge that would be doubling our COVID patient hospital census with limited ability to transfer patients.”

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Region 5 refers to the regional medical coordination centers (RMCC) activated by the Iowa Department of Public Health in response to the coronavirus pandemic. RMCC Region 5 includes Clinton, Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnson, Keokuk, Lee, Muscatine, Scott, Van Buren, Wapello and Washington counties in southeast and eastern Iowa.

Prior to the surge of coronavirus cases this fall, GRMC recorded its highest COVID patient count in August, with 20 people hospitalized. On Monday, McCoy said, that number was 39. If current trends continue, the hospital could see 70 to 80 people hospitalized in West Burlington with COVID.

To accommodate the anticipated surge, McCoy said GRMC recently initiated its emergency operations plan and has created a second COVID unit, is building walls to create more space in the hospital’s acute care area, walled off part of the intensive care unit and is “severely” limiting elective surgeries beginning Monday in order to utilize those health care workers in other parts of the hospital.

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If a patient must be seen in the intensive care unit, Iowa hospitals are struggling to find open beds and enough staff to care for them. IDPH data tracking the number of available hospital and ICU beds is not accurate, McCoy said, “because it does not reflect the number of staffed beds that are available.”

“I can just tell you right now, rarely is there an available ICU bed [in Region 5] except at the University of Iowa” in Iowa City, which is 76 miles from GRMC.

According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, 15 of 17 hospitals recently surveyed by health care leaders in southeast and eastern Iowa “lacked ICU capacity.”

The number of health care workers at home due to illness or exposure to COVID-19, combined with the surging cases and hospitalizations, has led everyone from health care executives to nurses and epidemiologists to plead with Iowans to take the pandemic seriously and limit their interactions with people outside of the home.

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McCoy said GRMC had an average of 82 staff members not at work this week. On Friday, it was 97. At Klein Center, Great River’s long-term care facility, 27 staff are home, “which is putting [Klein Center] in a crisis staffing situation.”

On Thursday, 21.3% of tests in Des Moines County were positive for COVID-19, according to IDPH. In Lee County, the positivity rate is 22.3% and Henry County’s is 27.1%.

“To me, this is a plea for help from everyone on this call,” said Matt Wenzel, president and CEO at Great River Health. “Wear your masks, social distancing, avoid large gatherings. That’s the facts.”


By Elizabeth Meyer
Posted 11/21/20

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