The Queen’s Health Systems has no available intensive care beds, has started canceling elective surgeries and procedures and has had to divert patients with emergency health needs to other hospitals as Hawaii’s surge in COVID-19 cases strains resources and threatens to grow worse.
“Our ICU beds are completely full,” said Jason Chang, chief operating officer of The Queen’s Health Systems and president of The Queen’s Medical Center, during an interview on Spotlight Hawaii, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s livestream program, on Monday. The beds are being occupied by an increasing number of COVID-19 patients, as well as patients who have experienced heart attacks, strokes and other traumas.
Chang said that the medical staff is still upbeat and compassionate, but stretched thin.
“They are tired, and there is a level of frustration when you know the COVID patient you are caring for was not vaccinated and it was largely preventable,” he said.
Chang said that last week Queen’s had to divert patients as its emergency department filled up, and warned that such diversions create a “trickle-down effect on the entire health care system,” causing other hospitals to begin diverting patients as well.
The health care system also began canceling most of its elective procedures last week and is looking at what surgeries and procedures it can postpone without causing permanent harm to patients.
“These are the ones that can maybe wait a week. … Our surgeons are really trying to make that right decision between, Are there going to be long-lasting effects if we delay this surgery one week or two weeks?” said Chang. “We know that we need the bed now, we need the resources today. The part that makes it really difficult is we don’t foresee this surge (stopping) anytime soon. So in two weeks the situation actually may be worse.”
The highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has caused cases in Hawaii to soar to twice the highest level seen during the height of the pandemic last year. Over the past week the state has averaged 652 cases a day, with 7.5% of tests coming back positive, according to state data. In early July the state was averaging just 50 cases a day. Health officials worry that case counts will continue to climb for weeks. On Friday, Dr. Libby Char, director of the state Department of Health, warned that the state was “on fire” and headed toward a health care disaster.
As case counts climb, so do hospitalizations. Some 308 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized throughout the state, according to state data updated Monday. The last time COVID-19 hospitalizations in Hawaii topped 300 was on Sept. 8, when the islands saw a record 315 patients admitted. Statewide, 64% of ICU beds are occupied. About one-third of the occupied beds are COVID-19 patients. There are 52 COVID-19 patients on ventilators.
Chang said that the average age of COVID-19 patients at Queen’s is now about 40. “When they find themselves in the hospital or intubated or in the ICU, I think it is quite shocking to their family and everyone else around them,” he said.
Queen’s is counting on 130 relief workers to help take care of patients starting Monday. Staffing shortages also have constrained the number of available beds.
Statewide, hospitals have requested more than 500 health care workers to help with the surge in COVID-19 cases. The first 46 workers began assisting Monday on Hawaii island, according to the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, a trade group for hospitals and nursing homes. State agencies are still working out contract details with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Queen’s Medical Center has also set up a triage tent outside of its emergency department to screen symptomatic patients who might have a COVID-19 infection.
On the neighbor islands the increase is COVID-19 patients is also taxing hospital staff and resources.
ICU beds at Hilo Medical Center are also full, according to Elena Cabatu, director of marketing and public and legislative affairs for the 128-bed hospital.
“Our nursing staff and our medical staff, they are frustrated, they are tired and maybe even heartbroken,” she said. “Because COVID is now affecting those people who are having non-COVID-related issues, such as heart attacks and strokes and traumas. So this is affecting everyone, and that is our plea to the community. It is to please get vaccinated so that our health care system can handle the patients when they do come to us.”
State health officials say that more than 90% of patients who are in hospitals statewide due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated. While the delta variant of the coronavirus has been shown to cause more breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people, the vaccine still provides strong protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death.
Cabatu said that when someone who is fully vaccinated ends up in the hospital with COVID-19, they tend to fare much better, having to stay only about a week. However, unvaccinated patients tend to be there for four weeks.
State Department of Health officials reported 539 new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections Monday, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 51,739 cases. The infection count by island includes 376 new cases on Oahu, 49 on Maui, 80 on Hawaii island, 14 on Kauai, three on Molokai and 17 Hawaii residents diagnosed outside the state.