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

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.

“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.

  • 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 the Democrats of trying to undermine his re-election chances by exaggerating the dangers of a virus that had, as of Wednesday, infected 10.3 million and killed nearly 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.

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.