Demographic breakdown remains steady even as hospital numbers decline, figures show


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Even as the total number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in North Carolina has fallen, the demographic breakdown of those patients has remained relatively steady, a data analysis found.

Overcrowding remains a concern among doctors treating those patients, with new federal data that covers last week showing nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the state still report being at least 90 percent full.

And even though the 2,374 patients in North Carolina hospitals Tuesday marked one of the smallest numbers in two months — and a drop of about 40 percent from the mid-January peak — those numbers are countered by anecdotal evidence from those physicians.

“It sure feels like there’s a lot of people in the hospital right now with COVID-19,” said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist with the University of North Carolina’s school of medicine.

While the raw numbers indicate fewer COVID-19 patients in hospitals, there has not yet been a shift in the demographic proportions of the people who are checking into them.

Since Oct. 1, when the state Department of Health and Human Services began breaking down hospital admissions by race, age and ethnicity, more than 26 percent of confirmed COVID admissions have been Black. Recently, that percentage has gone up slightly, with Black people accounting for 30 percent of those admissions from Jan. 26-Feb. 1, the most recent week’s worth of data available.

The ages of those in hospitals has remained more consistent, with 80 percent of people admitted over the past five months at least 50 years old and about two-thirds in their 60s or higher. Those percentages have held steady, with 81 percent of admissions during the most recent week involving those in their 50s or up, and people in their 60s or older accounting for 67 percent.

“The people who get sick, sick enough to be in the hospital, sick enough to be in the ICUs, are those with risk factors for severe disease, and age is one of the risk factors,” Wohl said.

Dr. Lisa Pickett, a trauma surgeon at Duke Health, says improvements in treatment options have led to an average length of stay that “is about the same or maybe down a little bit.

“However, we do get those patients who become incredibly ill, and they have lengths of stay measured in weeks and months,” Pickett said.

Overall, the seven-day average of COVID admissions in the state has fallen 36.8 percent between Jan. 10 and Feb. 6. About 15 percent of the total occupied beds in the state are filled by COVID patients, down from nearly 25 percent on Jan. 17.

And according to federal data for the week ending Feb. 6, four hospitals in the CBS 17 viewing area reported being at least 90 percent full, led by Central Carolina Hospital in Sanford, which was reported at 100 percent capacity.

Vidant Edgecombe in Tarboro was 94.5 percent full, Duke University Hospital in Durham — which, as a referral hospital, frequently has younger patients in need of tertiary care — was 93.9 percent full and Duke Raleigh was at 90.1 percent of capacity. Another local hospital, WakeMed Cary, was just under that threshold at 89.8 percent.

“It’s sort of like when you have a river or a lake that is really getting overflowed after a lot of storm,” Wohl said. “Sometimes, the water level goes up a little bit, sometimes it goes down a little bit, but it’s still overflowing. So we’ve been teetering for a time with overflow. It overflowed, and so I think we’re pulling some of that back.”

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