Big Island Hospitals Taxed as COVID Delta Variant Spreads Throughout County
Hawai‘i Island’s hospitals are nearing their capacities as the COVID-19 Delta variant runs rampant throughout the state.
On Tuesday, Aug. 3, Hawai‘i County Civil Defense Agency reported 789 active coronavirus cases on the island with 21 hospitalizations. Hilo Medical Center is treating the majority of those individuals, currently taking care of 11 patients, all of whom are unvaccinated.
HMC spokesperson Elena Cabatu said last year at this time, the hospital had the capacity for a surge in cases as they were mobilized with COVID-19 designated staff and a COVID unit within the emergency department. HMC was also hosting drive-through testing and when vaccines became available, and held several community-wide vaccination clinics.
Operations had been scaled back as the case count and positivity rate decreased within the county and statewide. However, with the growing number of cases over the past few months, Cabatu said it’s proven difficult to assemble the same level of COVID services the hospital was providing a year ago.
“I don’t think people understand how much it takes to mobilize resources,” Cabatu said.
At HMC, the average stay for a COVID patient is four weeks — for a non-COVID-positive patient admitted, it’s four days. Treating patients in the emergency department is cumbersome as nurses have to gown up before they meet any potential patient positive for the virus then remove their gown and disinfect to go to the next person.
Cabatu said HMC doesn’t have a COVID-19 unit in the hospital anymore. Instead, it’s a COVID-designated area in the emergency department that has negative pressure ventilation. Staff has had to figure out how to safely care for patients within HMC and find ways to transfer them, if possible, to different facilities.
“If a long-term health care facility has a positive case, they won’t admit new patients, which bottlenecks the system, Cabatu said. “It’s really the perfect storm for taxing our health care capacities.”
While last year the virus was primarily impacting the kūpuna, now the average age of COVID patients seeking treatment at HMC is 48 years old. Most of those individuals are unvaccinated.
“We’ve only had one patient who’d been vaccinated that had to be hospitalized, (and) the case was mild,” Cabatu said.
Kona Community Hospital spokesperson Judy Donovan said KCH is experiencing similar issues at its facility. She noted KCH’s staff shortage is also becoming a problem.
While the hospital currently has the employee capacity to staff its shifts, the issue resides in keeping shifts covered if someone calls out.
Two employees had to quit because they can no longer afford to live on the island, Donovan said. The living expenses have also impacted KCH’s ability to bring over traveling doctors, as they can’t afford to rent an apartment or a vehicle.
“This creates a panic problem,” Donovan said. “The community is not taking care of their health care workers.”
KCH is having problems getting traveling staff for several positions including nurses, respiratory therapists, imaging technologists, CNA’s and surgical techs.
“If they (the community) want good health care, (doctors and nurses) have to afford to live here,” Donovan said.