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Lincoln hospitals say they have no capacity issues
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Lincoln hospitals say they have no capacity issues

91-year-old released

Recovered COVID-19 patient Imogene Hostetler, 91, heads home from CHI St. Elizabeth in April accompanied by nurses Brittany McCoy and Patrick Kamphaus. Both CHI Health and Bryan Health say the availability of nurses and other staff is more of a concern than available bed space for COVID-19 patients.

Amid a steady rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Nebraska, the two hospital systems in Lincoln say they currently have no capacity issues.

Though coronavirus-linked hospitalizations statewide hit a record over the weekend and have declined only slightly since then, local hospitalizations are down more than 20% from their peak of 70 on Sept. 29.

However, hospitalizations are likely to remain high as the number of cases grow. After a record 693 cases in the week ending Sept. 12, Lancaster County has hovered between 530 and 610 weekly cases over the past month.

Statewide, however, new cases have continued to increase. The seven-day average of daily cases has risen from about 426 on Sept. 28 to 654 as of Monday, an increase of more than 50%. That gives Nebraska the seventh-highest rate of new cases, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported 704 new cases Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 53,543. There were five new COVID-related deaths, raising the state total to 527.

On Tuesday, Harvard Global Health Institute listed Nebraska as one of 14 states where case rates are so high it recommends stay-at-home orders be put in place.

Bryan starting to feel strain of high numbers of COVID-19 patients

Some hospital officials in Omaha have been sounding the alarm about capacity issues there, but that does not seem to be an issue in Lincoln, at least not yet.

Officials from both Bryan Health and CHI Health said Tuesday that even though hospital utilization is high, there is plenty of space for regular patients and patients with COVID-19.

Bob Ravenscroft, Bryan's vice president of advancement, said Tuesday that any capacity issues have been short term and "are related to staffing as much as they are physical or equipment capacity," meaning there are plenty of beds and ventilators, but there might not always be enough people to staff rooms and operate equipment.

Ravenscroft noted that Nebraska has had a nursing shortage for some time, and Bryan currently has more than 100 openings.

Another issue that complicates capacity calculations is that COVID-19 patients have much longer stays on average than patients in the hospital for other reasons.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 hit record high in Lancaster County; more patients are older

Ravenscroft said the average stay for non-COVID patients at Bryan is about 4½ days, while patients with COVID-19 can spend weeks or even months in the hospital.

As of Tuesday, Bryan had 43 COVID-19 patients in its two hospitals, 15 of whom were in intensive care and eight of whom were on a ventilator.

That number of patients with much-longer-than average stays can throw a wrench into the otherwise efficient process of moving patients in and out of the hospital, where roughly 15% of patients get discharged each day.

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On Tuesday, Bryan had 490 non-COVID-19 patients, which Ravenscroft said was "on the low end" of its normal daily numbers. And of its 533 total patients, 105 — or about 20% —  were scheduled to be discharged sometime during the day.

Cliff Robertson, CEO of CHI Health, said the health system had 87 COVID-19 patients Tuesday across its 14 hospitals in Nebraska and Iowa, five fewer than last week and 20 fewer than at its peak.

Robertson noted that roughly 150-200 people get discharged from its hospitals daily and a similar number get admitted.

"Capacity is literally something we manage all the time," he said.

Robertson said that capacity is more of an issue in the Omaha area currently, with CHI Health's hospitals there about 95% full, than it is in Lincoln, Kearney or Grand Island.

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CHI Health has a lot of additional capacity, with entire floors at some of its hospitals not in use, Robertson said, and could add hundreds of beds if needed.

But he said trying to staff those beds would be a problem.

"The challenge is staff and how you staff this extra capacity," Robertson said.

CHI Health has put in additional orders with companies that supply travel nurses in anticipation of increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Robertson said the health system has no plans at this point for any emergency measures, such as suspending elective surgeries or setting up "surge" tents to deal with COVID-19 patients.

One thing that may help ease the burden on staff at CHI St. Elizabeth in Lincoln is a new Intensive Care Unit software system unveiled Tuesday that officials say will help the hospital manage both COVID-19 and regular patients who are in the 16-bed critical care unit.

The system uses software and a camera attached to a patient's bed to allow a remote team made up of critical care nurses, doctors and others to talk with patients and monitor them 24 hours a day.

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While plans for the system were in the works before the pandemic, its installation is coming at a critical time and will provide benefits for staff attending to COVID-19 patients.

“We expect eICU to not only improve patient care, but also to help preserve personal protective equipment and cut down on the risk of exposure for both patients and staff,” said Derek Vance, CHI St. Elizabeth president.

St. Elizabeth also plans to install the system in its burn unit.

Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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