Another COVID-19 number on the rise: Ventilator use in NC reaches pandemic highs

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Another key number is spiking because of the COVID-19 delta variant: The count of hospitalized coronavirus patients who are on ventilators.

Hospitals across the state have had a total of more than 600 ventilated patients for 16 days in a row — and every day in September — according to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services data.

The single-day total peaked at 661 on Sept. 8 and has been at 650 or higher every day since then but once.

To put that into context, during the winter surge — when most of the statistical worsts of the pandemic took place — on only one day did that number surpass 500.

“We definitely are also seeing an uptick in both the number of patients that we’re taking care of, and also, they’re the ones needing the ventilators,” said Dr. Christine Vigeland, an instructor in the division of pulmonary diseases at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says 18 percent of hospitalized patients — or, more than 1 in 6 of them — across the state are on ventilators. That’s the highest that figure has been in exactly one calendar year — it was last at 18 percent on Sept. 13, 2020.

“We have patients in the intensive care unit who are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, as low as 20s, with really no other past medical history, and we just didn’t see that to this extent in the winter,” Vigeland said.

To this point, North Carolina is not in danger of running out of ventilators. North Carolina health officials say only 1,633 of the nearly 3,500 across the state were in use Monday.

But as the number continues to grow, it does expose the dwindling number of nurses skilled enough to operate them, Vigeland said.

“It takes a tremendous amount of expertise to keep that patient alive,” she said. “It takes respiratory therapists, nursing physicians, and this all requires special training.

“There’s a limited pool of people who are able to safely manage this sort of machine — if it falls out, that is an emergency,” she added. “And so we have to make sure that the patients are safe as possible.”

The process of putting a patient on a ventilator can be quite invasive.

“To put somebody on a ventilator means that we think that they are not able to breathe on their own, even despite maximum amounts of oxygen,” Vigeland said.

The patient is heavily sedated and a tube is placed into the patient’s mouth and into the trachea as quickly as possible, she said. That patient remains sedated “to keep them safe and comfortable during the whole time they are on the ventilator,” she added.

“We find that with patients with COVID, their lungs are so sick that they have to be basically completely sedated, not moving at all,” Vigeland said. “And in some cases even paralyzed, in order to get the full benefits of the ventilator.”

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