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Sussex hospitals suspend some surgeries amid COVID surge

Katie Tabeling

Beebe Healthcare and TidalHealth Nanticoke have stopped non-emergency surgeries due to pressure from rising COVID-19 hosptializations and staffing shortages. | PHOTO COURTESY UNSPLASHED/ARTUR TUMASJAN

With COVID-19 hospitalizations rate higher than they were last winter, southern Delaware hospitals have suspended elective surgeries once again as staff and bed capacity is short.

TidalHealth Nanticoke in Seaford announced this week it would pause non-emergency surgeries that required an overnight stay starting on Sept. 13, citing the stress on the regional hospital system. Beebe Healthcare in Lewes followed suit and announced a similar suspension which started on Sept. 14.

Bayhealth Hospital, based in Dover but with a large Milford hospital, has not suspended elective surgeries requiring overnight stays at this time. ChristianaCare, the largest hospital system in the state, has postponed some non-urgent procedures and pulled in skilled caregivers who work in non-clinical roles to provide direct patient care.

One week earlier, TidalHealth Peninsula Regional in Salisbury suspended elective surgeries due to the surge in COVID-related hospitalizations, due to the highly contagious delta variant and vaccine hesitancy.

“Patients who are ill with COVID are contributing to put stress and significant demand on the limited resources of the emergency department, hospital floors and the ICU, and the vast majority who are getting sick enough with COVID to require hospitalization are unvaccinated,” TidalHealth Peninsula Regional President of Medical Staff Mark Edney in a statement issued on Sept. 9.

“The subject of COVID vaccination has unfortunately become politicized, but there are some truths based on available community data and on current medical science that are indisputable,” he added.

Both Sussex and New Castle County have about 56% of their populations vaccinated, while 44.4% of Kent County is vaccinated. In the past seven days, the U.S. Center of Disease Controls reports that Sussex County has 86 new hospital admissions, while New Castle County had 81 and Kent had 30. All three counties are considered to be at high risk of COVID transmission.

When doctors and nurses were on the front lines of the pandemic last spring and much about the virus was unknown, hospitals in Delaware suspended visiting hours and elective surgeries, and canceled other non-urgent and non-critical care options. As the vaccine became easily accessible this summer and COVID-19 case numbers fell though, health care providers gradually reopened services.

But even when those pauses were lifted last year, hospital use — including emergency room and outpatient visits — were down in the second, third and fourth quarter of 2020 compared to 2019, according to a report from the Delaware Healthcare Association (DHA). Emergency rooms were down 21% while inpatient surgeries were down 18%. Total outpatient visits were down by over 150,000 visits.

At the height of the pandemic last year, Delaware hospitals were losing $5.6 million per day, the report shows. Much of the revenue loss was caused by suspending non-urgent services, according to DHA President Wayne Smith.

“While the pandemic continues to have an impact on our health systems, their priority remains providing a safe and caring healing environment,” Smith said. “Our hospitals continue to do the utmost to ensure patient and population health and safety including, potentially, non-urgent procedure management … If you are having a medical emergency, go to your local hospital. They are and will continue to be able to immediately address your needs.”

A national nursing shortage in Delaware is also compounding the issue, with baby boomers continuing to retire and staff burn out as the world remains in a pandemic 18 months later. In 2020, there were 15,800 registered nurses, creating a ratio of 16 nurses per 1,000 people, according to the U.S Bureau of Health Workforce.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services surveyed hospitals across the country, and the data shows that two of the 11 Delaware hospitals are at a “critical staffing shortage,” while seven reported they were not, as of Sept. 14. Two other hospitals did not report information. Of the 2,890 inpatient beds in the 11 Delaware hospitals, 78% are filled. 

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