Maine’s hospitals warn that they are nearing crisis mode, short on ICU beds as the number of COVID-19 patients needing critical care has skyrocketed in recent weeks. On Friday, the number of coronavirus patients in hospital ICUs tied a record set on Jan. 20, during the last large virus surge.
Right in the middle of it are the ICU staff forced to work long hours, risk infection and deal with one emergency after another, said Chris Laird, a critical care nurse and associate vice president of patient care services at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
“It’s hugely difficult,” Laird said. “There’s no slowdown for us right now.”
Little more than a month ago, on July 23, there were no COVID-19 patients at EMMC. Now, the hospital is treating 32 people with the coronavirus, including 18 in the ICU as of Friday. Four others are potential COVID-19 patients.
The hospital’s ICU is running out of beds, Laird said. Some COVID-19 patients are waiting either in the emergency department or at smaller area hospitals for beds to free up at the regional medical hub, according to an EMMC spokesperson.
Staff is stretched thin, with some forced to isolate due to getting the coronavirus themselves and others sick from exhaustion, Laird said. Plus, caring for a coronavirus patient in the ICU requires additional manpower, with some patients requiring two nurses, compared with the normal ICU ratio of one nurse to two patients.
Work-life balance has gone by the wayside. Laird said he was getting phone calls day and night about the ICU floor, especially regarding staffing.
“There’s very little downtime,” Laird said. “Even when you go home, you know that you’re coming back to everything.”
All age groups are represented among COVID-19 cases in the ICU, Laird said, though these patients were younger than the ones in the last surge. They are also sicker, very likely because they have been infected with the more contagious and potentially more severe delta variant, he said. Across the state, about half of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients now require critical care, compared with closer to a third during the last large virus surge in the winter, according to state hospitalization figures.
The vast majority — more than 80 percent — of the COVID-19 patients in ICU beds at EMMC are unvaccinated, Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 senior physician executive with Northern Light, said this week. That forces nurses and doctors to treat patients whose suffering could have been prevented or lessened had they been inoculated.
Still, patient care doesn’t change much depending on a patient’s vaccine status, Laird said, as all patients need support. Yet, Laird said, he has been bothered by misinformation that has spread about the virus worldwide, including over social media, such as statements that falsely equate COVID-19 with the flu.
“COVID-19 does impact people differently,” Laird said. “But it truly impacts and has people to where they are deathly ill.”
Laird himself contracted COVID-19 prior to the vaccine becoming available. Receiving treatment for the virus at the time, he was initially unable to get vaccinated when he became eligible.
Compounding pressure on the 36-bed ICU is the fact that non-COVID care that people receive at the hospital every day has not slowed down. That includes trauma care and care for people in surgery, he said.
“Half of my ICU right now is COVID,” Laird said. “The other is what we would normally see on a daily basis.”
Laird said it’s important to continue to support all hospital employees as they deal with a surge that is physically and psychologically taxing.
“We have a lot of people who are ready for this to be over,” he said.