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Healthcare

COVID-19 Surge Overwhelms Large Medical Centers In Southern States

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

COVID is squeezing hospitals across the South so tightly some of the region's largest medical centers are being pushed to their limits, and the surge isn't nearly over. Now, most places that doesn't mean patients are spilling into the streets, though. From member station WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer reports the pinch is largely happening behind the scenes.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Just because COVID is preoccupying a hospital doesn't mean the usual stuff stops - gunshot wounds, traumatic car accidents or, in the case of Eric Bradford's mother-in-law, a stroke. Not until he arrived at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville did he realize the region's largest hospital was technically at capacity.

ERIC BRADFORD: I've never thought it could be possible that it could be a difficult time to be at the hospital. Yeah, very scary.

FARMER: Bradford's family has been able to get treatment, but health officials are warning residents if it's not life or death, don't bother the strained ERs and try not to call 911. In many hospitals in the undervaccinated South, the story is pretty much the same. Generally, space isn't the problem. There are a few field hospitals going up in Mississippi. But for the most part, staffing is what's in such short supply. Nurses are just tapped out.

SUE PERRON: Now we're on a marathon with, like, no ending.

FARMER: Sue Perron has been working with COVID patients in Tennessee since the beginning of the pandemic, but she recently backed off to be part-time in the ICU as an act of self-preservation.

PERRON: Even though I absolutely love the ICU and would like to be the super ICU nurse I envisioned coming out of nursing school, I need little bit of a change of pace in order for me to go back and be 100% present for my patients.

FARMER: And Perron's a nurse who's found a way to just cut back, not leave the profession altogether. Health officials say the pool of nurses is just much smaller than it was at the start of the pandemic. In response, the price to bring in nurses from out of town is out of sight. One posting in hard-hit central Florida offers $9,000 a week. Georgia's helping hospitals pay the inflated rates. Tennessee's allowing National Guard troops to work inside hospitals.

What's really needed, though, is highly experienced ICU nurses who can monitor patients on ventilators or ECMO. That's a machine that oxygenates their blood outside the body. It requires such a big team there's currently a waiting line across the southeast. Dr. Aaron Milstone is a pulmonary specialist at a community hospital outside Nashville, where he's been waiting a week to transfer a patient to a medical center that can offer ECMO.

AARON MILSTONE: So when you talk about rationing care, we are already there. Public health officials don't want to say that. But every day, it's not just making life-and-death decisions, but it's deciding who can go on ECMO, who doesn't go on ECMO.

FARMER: This technical staffing shortage is relatively cloaked to the outside world. Parking garages could look pretty empty since many procedures have been put off and visitors are restricted again. But emergency doctors say the unseen situation is dire, like a heart attack patient in New Orleans who had to pass by six busy hospitals to find help, losing precious lifesaving time. And in most of the region, the worst is likely yet to come. Health officials aren't hypothesizing publicly about what a true failure of the hospital system would look like in the coming weeks, but Dr. Shailesh Patel at Methodist Le Bonheur, which serves patients from Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, says soon patients won't be getting all the care they need.

SHAILESH PATEL: If we do not change our course now, we're going to be in a lot of trouble.

FARMER: Changing course, Patel says, means rapidly reversing the region's low vaccination rate. The spike of cases has caused vaccinations to pick up over the last month, but it will take time for those delayed shots to turn back this COVID wave threatening the South.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "GREAT MALEVOLENT WITHHOLDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.