Oklahoma ICUs Near Capacity and Losing Beds

KTUL - January 24, 2023 5:08 pm

Intensive care units across Oklahoma are nearing a breaking point. The number of available ICU beds is shrinking, as is the overall capacity.

While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly made the problem worse, it wasn’t the source. Dr. George Monks, former president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said the state’s ICUs have been full for a long time.

“Even before COVID hit, there would be times – especially in the wintertime – that our hospital system would be under significant strain,” he said.

But right now, the Department of Health and Human Services says Oklahoma’s ICUs are 87% full.

“It’s usually lower than this,” Monks asserted. “87% is one of the higher percentages we’ve seen over the last couple of years. During the peak of COVID, when our hospitals were most strained here in Oklahoma and we were sending patients out of state, we were at 92% occupancy.”

Ascension St. John plans to open four more ICU beds Monday at their Broken Arrow facility. Matt Adams, the facility’s president, said it will make an impact.

“We know there’s a lack of ICU beds in Eastern Oklahoma,” he said. “I think the COVID pandemic really brought that to light, more so than we already knew. We knew there was a need and we wanted to be able to address that.”

However, Monks said it’s not about the beds themselves.

“A bed, unless it has all the staff to go with it – the nurses, the physicians, the respiratory therapists, every single part of the team – it’s a useless bed and it shouldn’t be counted,” he said.

“We welcome more applicants,” Adams said. “It’s hard to find nurses these days, right?”

Monks said the root cause of the shortage is healthcare worker burnout.

“If you look at this time last year,” he explained, “we actually had about 1,000 staffed ICU beds. Right now, we have about 800 staffed ICU beds.”

“We need more physicians,” he continued. “We need more nurses. That will help ease the burden that we’re seeing.”

Luckily, things are looking up.

“The good news is, though, we’ve seen a significant decrease in RSV,” Monks said. “And over the last three weeks or so, we’ve seen a significant decrease in flu cases.”

As a result, believe it or not, part of the shortage may be by design.

“The most efficient way for a hospital to operate,” Monks said, “is to stay close to capacity while still offering all of the services that are available and not turning any patients away. And right now, we’re still able to deliver high-quality care. No one’s going without a bed. We’re okay right now, and hopefully we’ll stay that way.”


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