WINCHESTER — The number of coronavirus patients at Winchester Medical Center has doubled in the last two months.
On Thursday, there were 64 infected patients at the 405-bed hospital, according to Dr. Nicolas C. Restrepo, vice president of medical affairs at the hospital and Valley Health System, the six-hospital chain that includes WMC. In early October, WMC had about 30 infected patients.
The increase in admitted patients mirrors state and national numbers. Nationally, COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased from nearly 40,000 on Oct. 1 to 100,000 by Tuesday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, an information collection organization created by The Atlantic magazine. In Virginia on Thursday, 1,860 patients were hospitalized with the virus, the most since COVID was declared a pandemic in March.
According to the COVID Tracking Project, the number of people hospitalized in Virginia has doubled in the last two months. And the 158 new hospitalizations on Wednesday was the second highest in Virginia since the pandemic began. The most was 182 on May 7.
The hospitalizations are part of a national surge in infections and deaths. By Thursday, 1.5 million people had died globally, including about 273,000 Americans, according to the John Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center.
The percentage of infected Americans who die has dropped from 6.7% in April to about 2% in September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nonetheless, the U.S. recorded 3,157 deaths on Wednesday alone, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Through Wednesday in Virginia, 4,147 had died, according to the Virginia Department of Health. That includes 150 people in the Lord Fairfax Health District in less than eight months.
The district, which includes Winchester, as well as Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties, recorded its first death on April 24. Even Clarke County — which has a small and spread out population and didn’t have its first death until Sept. 30 — has now recorded four deaths.
With mass vaccinations months away and a sizable minority of the population refusing to regularly wear masks or socially distance, the surge is expected to continue throughout the winter. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predicts the total number of American coronavirus deaths will increase to about 471,000, including about 7,100 in Virginia, by March 1.
Virginia hospitals have felt that stress, but not as much as some states such as Texas where inmates and the National Guard were called in to move hundreds of bodies to mobile morgues in El Paso last month. In Virginia, there were 6,948 beds available on Thursday, according to the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association. That includes nearly 3,700 beds added under Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order in March that temporarily relaxed licensing rules for hospital beds.
In April, then-Valley Health CEO Mark H. Merill said Winchester Medical Center could accommodate up to 84 coronavirus patients. Restrepo, who answered a series of questions emailed by The Winchester Star on Thursday, wouldn’t say if that number has changed. He said if the hospital reached capacity, it would contact other local hospitals.
“Our goal is to place patients in the nearest facility to their home that has the capability and capacity to provide the level of care they need,” Restrepo said, adding that the hospital has an adequate supply of personal protective equipment and other medical supplies. “Currently, we have the capacity to care for all who need care in the Valley Health System.”
In addition to a shortage of beds, hospitals in some states have experienced staffing shortages. WMC has about 460 doctors and 1,200 nurses. Additionally, there are roughly 160 advance-practice clinicians, which includes nurse practitioners.
Restrepo wouldn’t say how many WMC staff members have been infected or are quarantining due to being close to someone who was diagnosed with the virus. He said a contingency plan is in place to deal with staffing shortages.
The plan includes redirecting staff from different units of the hospital and adjusting elective or non-emergency surgeries if needed. The hospital, which is projected to lose up to $58 million this year, canceled elective and non-emergency surgeries from March 23 to May 6 due to the pandemic. The procedures are a major revenue source for the hospital.
Restrepo said all emergency and urgent surgeries are occurring as are procedures in which the patient doesn’t need to stay overnight. “Patients requiring a post-procedural admission after a non-time sensitive procedure are being evaluated on a continual basis and being cared for based on the availability of beds,” he said.
Restrepo acknowledged that staff are experiencing emotional and physical exhaustion from the pandemic, which is “a significant threat” to their well-being. To reduce the strain on hospital staff, he urged people to regularly wear masks and wash their hands and socially distance. Restepo said the community should be grateful for the hard work and “heroic” efforts staff have made in treating patients.
“They have put their lives on hold to care for COVID-19 patients and haven’t had a break since March,” he said. “We’re working on ways to reduce stress and make the daily struggles easier.”