(NEW YORK) -- As COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to climb in Pennsylvania, straining health care facilities across the state, hospitals are working to find ways to free up valuable bed space once again.
WellSpan Health, which operates six acute care facilities in south-central Pennsylvania, has been approaching 400 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in recent days -- a volume not seen in nearly a year. About one-third of current hospitalizations are for COVID-19, hospital officials said.
As the number of COVID-19 patients quickly escalates, WellSpan's hospitals are operating at 110% to 140% occupancy, Dr. Michael Seim, chief quality officer and senior vice president of WellSpan Health, told ABC News. He doesn't expect the volume to let up for several more weeks.
"Unfortunately, our predictive models don't show this wave peaking until January 2022," Seim said. "I think we're all bracing for this to be longer than last year."
The health care system has been in this spot before. During the region's first coronavirus surge, it converted its 73-bed WellSpan Surgery & Rehabilitation Hospital in York into an acute care facility to handle both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients -- a measure it has resorted to once again in recent weeks. Twenty patients were at the hospital as of Friday afternoon.
To free up beds for acutely ill patients, WellSpan has also been working with a community partner to discharge patients to skilled nursing facilities for longer-term care. Though that's also meant working around staffing shortages.
"A unique problem across south-central Pennsylvania is some of our skilled nursing facilities have empty beds, but they don't have staffing," Seim said. "So that's creating a backlog in our hospitals, making it difficult to discharge patients to a skilled facility."
To help, WellSpan has been training and deploying several of its nurses to staff those extra beds.
Remote care is another way the health care system has worked to shorten hospital stays during the pandemic. Through its home service, eligible patients who are in stable condition are monitored remotely and have clinicians visit them in their own homes. The hospital system treated over 400 patients through the program last year, saving 1,000 patient days in the hospital, Seim said.
The program will once again help free up bed space during the latest COVID-19 surge, and it is something the health care system will continue to offer post-pandemic, Seim said.
"It's really designed to continue to be innovative in how we provide care to patients," he said.
Though these practices will prove useful in the long-term, Seim said hospital workers were at one point hopeful they were moving past the pandemic and needing to find ways to free up hospital space is taxing.
"The fact that we're taking a step back, it feels much worse to people," Seim said.
Around 90% of WellSpan's COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, and almost 93% of COVID-19 patients on ventilators are unvaccinated, he said.
"We have to do our part to reduce the number of patients who require hospitalization for COVID," Seim said. "We won't be able to end or even curtail the pandemic until we vaccinate a substantially larger number of patients."
Around 58% of Pennsylvania residents are fully vaccinated, according to state data. Hospital officials have been urging vaccination as COVID-19 hospitalization rates in the state are among the highest in the U.S.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Pennsylvania have increased at least 10% in the past week as of Friday, while available adult and pediatric intensive care unit beds have fallen to 13.5% and 7.7%, respectively, according to federal and state data. The vast majority of hospitalized patients statewide are not fully vaccinated.
Hospitals statewide are feeling the impact of the surge.
"From the northeast side to the northwest side, to down in the south-central, so all over Pennsylvania, hospitals are feeling a demand on beds," Robert Shipp, vice president of population health and clinical affairs for the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, told Philadelphia ABC station WPVI.
Geisinger Health System, one of the state's largest health systems, told the station it is running out of beds across its nine hospitals in central and northeastern Pennsylvania.
"The health care system in Pennsylvania is at the brink of collapse," Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gerald Maloney told WPVI. "People continue to come with strokes, heart attacks, car accidents. It's hard to get them out of the ambulance because we don't have a place in the emergency department to put them."
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