As Covid hospitalizations soar, states struggle to find enough beds and staff

Nigel Chiwaya and Corky Siemaszko
·6 min read

In El Paso, Texas, a convention center has been turned into a Covid-19 field hospital and refrigerated trailers have been trucked in to store the dead because there’s no more room in the morgues.

In Massachusetts, Michigan and several other states, hospitals are struggling to find enough beds for the influx of coronavirus patients and canceling elective surgeries so doctors and nurses can concentrate on Covid-19 cases.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks in Bismarck on March 20, 2020. (Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune via AP file)
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks in Bismarck on March 20, 2020. (Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune via AP file)

In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum has given health care workers who tested positive — but aren’t displaying any symptoms — the green light to keep treating Covid-19 patients because he’s running out of nurses and doctors.

“At this time, our limiting factor is not beds, it’s staffing,” John Pierce, president of the Rapid City Hospital in neighboring South Dakota, said.

That was a snapshot of a national hospital system in crisis Wednesday as health care facilities across the United States were stretched to the limit and The Covid Tracking Project reported a record 61,964 people infected with the coronavirus were hospitalized Tuesday.

And there was another worrying milestone: 148,302 Covid-19 cases were recorded across the U.S. on Wednesday, according to an NBC News tally, which marks a new daily high.

The previous daily record was 133,819 cases reported on Monday, according to that count. Wednesday was also the eighth day in a row of more than 100,000 Covid-19 cases reported.

“The trends obviously are going in the wrong direction and show no signs of changing,” said Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who warned they might have to once again open field hospitals to care for a possible overflow of patients as hospital intensive care units fill up.

The nation’s top infectious disease experts have been sounding that alarm for weeks, and an NBC News analysis of the current coronavirus trends showed the U.S. on pace to hit 20 million cases of Covid-19 by Christmas if the virus keeps infecting people at the current rate.

In other coronavirus news:

  • The much-anticipated Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine that could be rolled out soon to combat the pandemic "is a new type of technology that's never been used in mass human vaccination before and experts caution that much remains unknown about its safety, how long it might work and who might benefit most," NBC News reported Wednesday.

  • Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla enjoyed a windfall on Monday, raking in $5.6 million after shares in his company surged on hopeful news about the development of a Covid-19 vaccine, Reuters reported. The drug maker said Bourla’s pre-planned stock sale was part of a trading plan established in August.

  • Two more people who attended the White House election night party have tested positive: Brian Jack, the White House political director, and Trump ally Healy Baumgardner. Others who also tested positive after the bash include chief of staff Mark Meadows, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, campaign legal adviser Dave Bossie and multiple White House aides.

  • While the White House has openly embraced the concept of "herd immunity," in which the coronavirus would be allowed to spread until enough of a population becomes immune, the world's leading public health experts said following such a strategy would be catastrophic.

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced new restrictions on restaurants, bars and gyms as his state, which was the nation's hot spot back in March, struggled to contain new clusters of coronavirus. The governor also ordered that all "indoor gatherings at private residences" must be limited to a maximum of 10 people.

  • More than 540 students at the University of Connecticut were placed in quarantine Wednesday after a dozen students tested positive for the coronavirus.

  • Texans were mourning Dr. Juan Fitz, a "hero of emergency medicine," who died of Covid-19.

“Newly confirmed cases of the disease are running well over 100,000 per day,” Eric Yager, an expert on infectious diseases at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, said in an email to NBC News. “As we experienced early in the pandemic, an increase in infections is followed by an increase in hospitalizations and then deaths. Though clinicians have an increased understanding of the disease and ways to treat it, hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed.”

But local leaders say that they have received little guidance from the White House Coronavirus Task Force and that President Donald Trump’s sole focus of late has been on challenging the results of last week’s election, which showed him losing to President-elect Joe Biden.

“We are in a very critical moment with respect to this nation’s response to this virus and there isn’t guidance, direction or a consistent message coming from D.C.,” Baker, a Republican, said.

The guidance coming from Trump almost from the start has been a mixed bag of misinformation and rosy predictions about the progress of the pandemic that have turned out to be false.

For months, Trump has accused Democrats of trying to undermine his re-election chances by exaggerating the dangers of a virus that had, as of Wednesday, infected 10.4 million and killed more than 242,000 people in the U.S. — both world-leading figures.

“All you hear is Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid,” Trump said shortly before the election at a campaign rally in Gastonia, North Carolina. “That’s all they put on, because they want to scare the hell out of everyone.”

On Wednesday, North Carolina reported 3,119 new Covid-19 cases, one of the highest daily numbers since the start of the pandemic.

Several other states set new records Tuesday for coronavirus infections: Ohio (6,508), Colorado (3,890), Wyoming (1,232), and Montana (1098), the latest NBC News data showed. Missouri recorded 146 deaths on Tuesday, which is the most fatalities in a single day for that state.

The city of Pensacola, Florida, where Trump held a pre-election campaign rally at which few participants wore masks or attempted to social distance, declared a state of emergency Tuesday after a spike in coronavirus hospitalizations, The Pensacola News Journal reported.

Burgum is one of several Republican governors who has taken his cues on tackling the coronavirus from the White House, which had encouraged states to reopen after barely a month of lockdown in the spring even though coronavirus cases were just starting to crest in the South and the Sun Belt.

States in the Midwest and the Plains have been the hardest hit by the pandemic in recent months.

North Dakota now has one of the worst death and per-capita infection rates in the country, but Burgum has yet to impose a statewide mask mandate, even though the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have, for months, called mask-wearing the most effective way of curbing the spread of the disease currently available.

But in amending the North Dakota state order to allow nurses who test positive but show no symptoms to continue treating Covid-19 patients, Burgum said he was following CDC guidance which allows it when a state is facing a severe staff shortage, The Grand Forks Herald reported.