COVID-19 cases across Southwestern Pennsylvania have soared in recent weeks, and local hospitals are preparing for the surge in hospitalizations.

Earlier this week, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine warned that the state, at its current rate, will run out of ICU beds in December.

She urged hospital officials to gear up for a surge in COVID-19 patients, and to work with other hospitals to “prepare how they’re going to support one another, should we get to the point that a hospital could become overwhelmed.”

Dr. John Six, Vice President of Medical Affairs and chief medical officer at Washington Health System, is concerned that the pandemic is going to worsen in the region.

“I do see that, as a region, this is likely to worsen for us. We have the perfect storm, if you will, for holiday gatherings, changing weather, and influenza,” said Six. “I think we are just at the beginning. I think this is a marathon, and this is very early in the race.”

Joshua Krysak, community relations director for Uniontown Hospital, shares Six’s concern.

“This surge is much more significant than anything we’ve seen to this point in the pandemic,” said Krysak.

In Washington County, the number of positive coronavirus cases has increased 102% in the past month, while the hospitalization rate has soared 688%. Deaths have risen by 67%.

Data provided by the Washington County Department of Safety showed that from the onset of the pandemic through Oct. 18, there were 1,650 COVID cases. In the month since then, 1,690 more cases have been reported.

In the past month, deaths have climbed from 32 to 53.

COVID cases have risen in Greene and Fayette counties, too.

So far, area hospitals and health care systems are faring well, even as cases have soared in recent weeks.

Allegheny Health Network’s Canonsburg Hospital on Thursday was treating 21 COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Chong S. Park, president of Canonsburg Hospital, said he is “confident that at Canonsburg we are able to handle what’s going on right now.”

The hospitals in the network meet daily to review each hospital’s needs and how to distribute supplies and equipment.

He said Canonsburg Hospital has adequate personal protective gear; it currently has 17 negative pressure rooms and is adding a dozen more; and has procured additional ventilators.

Bed capacity, though, is a concern.

“Bed capacity is bed capacity. You can’t create more,” said Park.

Over the past several days, the number of COVID patients admitted at Canonsburg Hospital has risen by a couple each day. And, while the average hospital stay is two to three days, coronavirus patients are hospitalized for typically seven to 10 days.

“So, every day, three or four may go home, but five or six might come in,” he said.

Hospitals are considering alternate care sites in the event they reach capacity.

At Washington Health System, 41 patients are being treated for COVID.

Over the last nine months, 230 COVID patients have been admitted – 70% of those have been admitted within the past six weeks, Six said. Three are on ventilators.

He worries about having enough doctors, nurses, and health care workers to care for COVID patients, even if WHS has enough beds and ventilators.

“All of the hospitals are feeling the squeeze with staffing because they’re out sick or in quarantine. That’s our greatest concern right now, having the human capital to make sure we can help our patients,” said Six.

At Uniontown Hospital, Krysak said the hospital has been able to handle the current influx of patients, and has plans in place “should the need arise for additional surge capacity.”

The hospital is averaging between five to 10 COVID-19 patients a day. Currently, none of the patients are on ventilators, but Krysak said Uniontown Hospital has a sufficient supply.

“All of the aspects that could be difficult in (upcoming) months – from potential staffing shortages to maintaining an adequate supply of PPE – may present challenges,” said Krysak. “But our team has worked and is continuing to work to navigate each obstacle presented by this crisis and be here and ready for our community when they need us most.”

In Washington County, 71 COVID patients were hospitalized as of Oct. 18, with more than a quarter of them in an ICU and eight of those critically ill patients on a ventilator.

By Dec. 12, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that an additional 7,300 to 16,000 Americans will die from COVID-19, bringing the total to between 276,000 to 298,000 deaths.

Another model, prepared by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington School of Medicine, projects 438,941 COVID deaths by March 1.

A rise of COVID cases came after Halloween, and with Thanksgiving and Christmas days and weeks away, health officials say this is a critical time for people to follow safety guidelines – wearing face masks, social distancing, washing hands, and celebrating only with members of their households.

“We are ready to help our community as best as anyone can,” said Park. “The only thing is, as a health care worker I’d ask everyone to do the right thing. They know what the right thing to do is; they just have to do it.”

Hospital officials said that new medications and potential vaccines are encouraging, but noted any vaccine will not be available for months, and even then, initial distribution is likely to be limited.

“It’s very important now more than ever to really consider doing the basics,” said Six. “Masking, social distancing and hand-washing are really going to get us through this surge.”

Six said hospital workers are experiencing some fatigue, nine months into the pandemic, but said morale remains high, and community support has been outstanding.

“When we started down this journey nine months ago, morale was higher. We were getting our feet wet,” said Six. “Now, you have the stress of this surge. I think it starts to show. But we as a health system are here for you. We are here 24/7. We will get through this. Don’t panic.”

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