COVID tracker: No surge so far, but parts of our hospital system are full anyway

  • PICU stands for pediatric intensive care unit. They are often completely full in the state because of respiratory diseases. NH Hospital Association—Courtesy

Granite Geek
Published: 11/27/2022 1:00:29 PM
Modified: 11/27/2022 1:00:13 PM

Almost exactly one month ago the COVID Tracker warned “here comes the fall surge.” The very next day New Hampshire hospitalizations began to decline.

Far from surging, the number of people in the hospital recovering from COVID has stayed relatively low, returning to the levels of late summer. Presumably, this is a coincidence rather than an inverse example of the power of the press, but we’ll take it.

Unfortunately, we also have to take some bad news involving respiratory disease.

“For three years we’ve been focused on COVID, COVID, COVID, but that’s not all we’re dealing with over the coming months,” said Steve Ahnen, president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association.

As of this writing, there isn’t a single open bed in any pediatric Intensive Care Unit in the state, as our hospitals face an increase in sick kids due to seasonal flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) on top of the lingering pandemic.

New Hampshire isn’t alone in this. Ahnen said neighboring states are also seeing full pediatric ICUs, which contributes to our problem.  “There’s no other place to send them, because they’re already full.”

Outside ICUs, the occupancy rate of all hospital beds in New Hampshire has been hovering around 90 percent for many months. This is partly because of medical issues that worsened during pandemic-caused delays in diagnosis but it’s also because long-term care and rehabilitation facilities are full, often due to a shortage of trained staff, so patients can’t be discharged even if they have improved.

These occupancy rates are not a disaster but they’re a continued challenge for a medical system already strained by shortages of nurses and other medical professionals.

In other words, even if we avoid a big COVID surge, which is not certain, we are not out of the woods.

“There’s no question we’re going to see flu, COVID, RSV and other respiratory illnesses increase as people move indoors; but what’s the level? Are we going to see significant spikes this winter? … That’s the question,” Ahnen said.

On a happier note, Ahnen pointed out that we have all sorts of tools that were lacking in past years, including vaccines, boosters, therapeutics, home tests, and the habit of public masking.

“All of those things are in our toolbox. But we have to use them,” he said.

This is my cue to say that I’m still wearing an N95 mask in crowded public spaces and you should, too. My hope is to avoid getting the flu as much as continuing to avoid COVID.

I’m often the only person who is masked but on the other hand, nobody has ever hassled me about it or given me the stink-eye, so I think we’ve gotten more accustomed to the idea.

And if anybody tells you that you’re over-reacting, take them to a pediatric ICU. 

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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