December 6, 2020

How the Pandemic Is Straining the Healthcare System – and What You Can Do to Help

Prevention is key to making sure everyone in your community can get the care they need

Docotrs and nurses work on covid patient

Healthcare workers are understandably exhausted. Many hospitals are teetering on the edge of being overwhelmed – or already there. Yet more people than ever need medical care for severe complications of COVID-19.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

So what happens now?

As the COVID-19 pandemic surges in many parts of the country, hospitals must figure out how to manage an influx of people who are very sick with COVID-19 on top of their usual patient loads.

“We’re concerned and, due to how fast COVID-19 cases are rising, we’re actively planning to try to keep up with demand,” says Medical Director of Hospital Operations Rita Pappas, MD.

Hospitals prepare for this, and there are ways they can increase their capacity to care for patients who urgently need it. But to do that, they usually have to take resources away from other kinds of care they provide to communities.

Here’s a look at what that means and what you can do to help protect healthcare in your own community.

What is a hospital or health system’s capacity?

A hospital’s capacity is how many beds it has to care for patients. This includes patients who are hospitalized for medical care – such as cancer treatment, surgeries, or labor and delivery – and those who need specialized care in the intensive care unit.

To be able to help all of those patients, a hospital also needs the appropriate amount of staff and supplies, such as medicine and personal protective equipment. A shortage of any of those things could affect the care a hospital can provide.

When hospitals become overwhelmed

Most hospitals usually operate somewhere near their capacity. This means there’s not a lot of excess room during normal times. So when something happens that creates lots of extra need for hospital care – like a disaster or a pandemic – they have to try to balance the limited resources they have with that demand.

Hospitals and public health experts spend a lot of time planning for these situations. But as the U.S. faces the largest surge of COVID-19 yet, the number of people getting sick and needing to be hospitalized is climbing so quickly that it’s stretching even the most well-prepared hospitals thin. (Data shows COVID-19 surpassed heart disease as the leading cause of death in the U.S. during the week after Thanksgiving.)

Advertisement

One issue is space. Some hospitals feel the pinch especially in their ICUs, which have a limited number of beds reserved for the very sickest patients.

ICUs have sophisticated equipment that can help keep people alive when their organ systems are failing. That includes ventilators, which some very sick COVID-19 patients are put on when their lungs become so inflamed that they can’t breathe well on their own.

According to Dr. Pappas, about 20% of patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19 end up going to the ICU. That’s created a big need for ICU beds and the highly skilled and trained staff that care for those patients.

Other parts of the hospital are being squeezed by the pandemic, too. Laboratories, for example, have been swamped by a never-ending stream of COVID-19 tests. Nurses are busy helping monitor patients who are recovering at home.

Then, there’s the fact that healthcare workers are just as likely as anyone else to get infected with COVID-19 in their everyday life. Many hospitals face additional staff shortages because a significant portion of their workers are sick and unable to come to work.

“If the surge continues, then labor will be a real issue,” Dr. Pappas says.

Expanding capacity is a balancing act

Hospitals create “surge plans” to help navigate situations like this. “What we’re trying to do is balance the resources we have for both COVID care and non-COVID care,” Dr. Pappas says.

Sometimes that requires them to make difficult decisions about prioritizing care.

For example, to deal with staffing shortages, some hospitals have postponed non-lifesaving procedures such as cosmetic surgeries and joint replacements. This frees up workers to help treat hospitalized patients who need urgent care. But it can also be very disappointing and frustrating if you’re someone whose long-awaited surgery has been postponed.

Hospitals that are part of a larger health system might also consolidate all of their COVID-19 patients into one or more designated locations. This makes it easier to them follow best practices for infection control, but it could also mean that other patients can’t get all of the non-COVID-related care they usually get at those locations.

Advertisement

In extreme cases, hospitals have opened temporary field hospitals to accommodate additional patients. But without extra healthcare workers to staff them, that’s not an option.

What you can do to protect your healthcare

As cooler temperatures bring people indoors and the holidays tempt people to gather with family and friends, experts are bracing for the situation to get even worse.

“We usually see a big surge two weeks after a holiday,” Dr. Pappas says.

To help protect our healthcare system and ensure that everyone will still be able to get all of the care that they need, Dr. Pappas says following COVID-19 safety precautions is more important than ever.

That means wearing a mask, following physical distancing guidelines, washing your hands and thinking carefully about your holiday plans.

You’re probably tired of doing these things, but they’re the best prevention measures we have right now. Vaccines are coming soon, and they should help get the pandemic under control. But we have to balance our optimism for them with the reality of the current situation.

Related Articles

crowd of people at music concert
February 5, 2024
What Constitutes a ‘Superspreader Event’?

Any large social gathering — from a family birthday party to an indoor music concert — has the potential to spread serious infection

Male with eyes closed sitting hunched over, pinching area between their eyes
January 29, 2024
Headache and Fatigue: 11 Possible Causes That Can Trigger Both

Many factors, like dehydration, a cold or even your medication, can result in these common symptoms

Female wrapped in blanket laying on sofa looking fatigued or unwell
January 23, 2024
How To Manage COVID Fatigue and Regain Your Energy

It’s important to connect with a healthcare provider, get quality sleep and balance your activities with your energy levels

Sick person on couch using tissue on nose with medication bottles on coffee table
January 19, 2024
How To Know if It’s COVID-19, a Cold or Allergies

Symptoms can overlap and be hard to distinguish, but there are some telltale differences

Healthcare umbrella is held over diverse group of people
January 18, 2024
What Is Health Equity and Why Does It Matter?

Inequality hurts our health at a personal, community and global level

Close-up of hands in lab gloves sorting vials and covid-19 blood sample
January 17, 2024
Everything You Need To Know About COVID-19 Variants

Just like the flu, COVID-19 will continue to evolve every year

Adult female on couch, coughing into crook of arm, holding thermometer
January 15, 2024
Prepping for Flurona: When COVID-19 and the Flu Strike at the Same Time

It’s best to treat flu-like symptoms as if you have COVID-19

positive COVID test with COVID virus molecules floating around it
December 20, 2023
How Long Does COVID-19 Last if You’re Vaccinated?

The duration varies, but symptoms can linger for a few days up to a couple weeks or more

Trending Topics

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try

Exercise and diet over three months is hard to accomplish.
Everything You Need To Know About the 75 Hard Challenge

Following five critical rules daily for 75 days may not be sustainable

Person in foreground standing in front of many presents with person in background holding gift bags.
What Is Love Bombing?

This form of psychological and emotional abuse is often disguised as excessive flattery

Ad