PA Health System Runs Out of Beds Due to COVID Surge, Patients Wait 10 to 20 Hours in ER

Geisinger, one of Pennsylvania’s largest health systems has run out of beds due to the COVID surge, causing patients to wait 10 to 20 hours in the emergency department, officials said Wednesday.

Officials said doctors and nurses are having to perform “waiting room medicine” on waiting patients.

Geisinger is operating at 110 percent capacity in its nine hospitals located in central and northeastern Pennsylvania. A quarter to over half of admissions are unvaccinated COVID patients, Dr. Jaewon Ryu, Geisinger’s president and chief executive officer, said. Citing the increasing number of cases and percentage of positive tests, he expects the situation to worsen in the upcoming weeks.

“COVID continues to rage on,” said Ryu, emphasizing the importance of vaccinations.

Approximately 90 percent of COVID patients at Geisinger are unvaccinated while 8 percent received their doses over six months ago.

Geisinger is also not the only health system experiencing the surge in the state.

“Hospitals statewide are strained and many are at or approaching capacity,” with long ER wait times, Liam Migdail, spokesperson for the trade organization Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said.

An average of 3,900 people each day have been admitted into hospitals with COVID all around the state in the past two weeks, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported. The health department said that around 13 percent of the state’s adult ICU beds and 10 percent of its medical-surgical beds are open.

“The current surge, largely driven by the unvaccinated population, is placing an enormous burden on our region’s health care system,” St. Luke’s Vice President of medical and academic affairs Dr. Jeffrey Jahre said.

Pennsylvania, COVID Surge, Extended Capacity
Geisinger’s president and CEO Dr. Jaewon Ryu expects the situation at Geisinger hospitals to worsen in the coming weeks, citing the increasing number of cases and percentage of positive tests. In this photo, mobile tents set up to handle the recent influx of flu cases stand outside the Lehigh Valley Health Network’s main hospital campus January 11, 2013 in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

In addition to the COVID-19 surge, Migdail said, hospitals are seeing more patients who had deferred routine care earlier in the pandemic.

“This is all compounded by a staffing crisis that has significantly intensified over the past year as more clinicians and support staff leave their positions due to burnout and fatigue,” Migdail said.

Bethlehem-based St. Luke’s University Health Network on Wednesday restricted visitation to two per patient — with COVID-19 patients not permitted any visitors unless they are nearing death — after reporting a “dramatic, ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases.” St. Luke’s reported 220 pandemic patients at its 14 campuses, nearly identical to the number of COVID-19 patients it was treating at this time last year.

Pittsburgh-based UPMC, Pennsylvania’s largest health network, said its COVID-19 census has been going up rapidly since early November. In addition to the rising virus patient count, UPMC hospitals are seeing more patients who had put off care. Dr. John Goldman, a UPMC infectious diseases specialist, expects to see more influenza patients after there were almost no flu cases last year

“We’re very full,” he said.

At Geisinger hospitals, the latest coronavirus surge means ambulances are backed up, ER doctors have resorted to making rounds in waiting rooms to diagnose patients with perforated bowels and other serious ailments, and COVID-19 patients are getting oxygen in crowded hallways, said Geisinger’s Dr. Essie Reed.

“We’re almost two years into this, and it still feels like every day is a crisis when we go to work,” said Reed, an emergency physician at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre and Geisinger’s director of EMS. “It’s probably worse than it was last year.”

She said she recently took care of a young, unvaccinated married couple who both died of COVID-19 after refusing the “proven therapies” offered by Geisinger.

“We want to make these stories come to an end,” said Reed, begging people to get their coronavirus shots “so we’re not taking our turns crying in the med closet over unnecessarily watching patients die.”

Ryu, the Geisinger CEO, displayed a line graph that showed the explosive trajectory of Geisinger’s in-patient COVID-19 population. It was similar to last winter’s trajectory — yet the current numbers are even higher than they were a year ago.

One day last week, all but one of the patients admitted to Geisinger Jersey Shore Hospital in Lycoming County were there to be treated for COVID-19, he said.

“What we’re going through here is largely preventable,” Ryu said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Pennsylvania Hospitals, COVID Surge, Extended Capacity
Approximately 90 percent COVID patients at Geisinger are unvaccinated while 8 percent received their doses over six months ago. In this photo, a member of the U.S. Armed Forces administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a police officer at a FEMA community vaccination center on March 2, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Mark Makela/Getty Images