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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
No Football Saturday
Lincoln Southwest volunteer
Mother/son art project
UNL in-person class
Farmers Market influencers
Soccer With Masks
Weeping Water vs. Fillmore Central/Exeter-Milligan
Back to UNL
First day of middle school
First day of school
Pius X volleyball practice
City Council BLM protest
Rally and hearing
Mask Video DeLones
Lincoln High School readiness days
Lancaster County Super Fair
LPS board meeting
Meatpacking workers rally
Lincoln Northeast graduation
Gov. Ricketts address Legislature
Drive-thru Bible School
LPS virus teachers
Shrine Bowl, 7.11
Make A Wish
Masked Archie the Mammoth
First Jury Trial in Four Months
Lincoln Children's Museum Reopening
Community Learning Center
Lincoln Community Playhouse
The Kindler Hotel
Garth Brooks Drive-In Concert
Urban Air Adventure Park
Gere Branch Library
Music on the Move
Bars Opening in Lincoln
LPS Teachers Retirement
Holmes Lake Manor Horse Visit
Lancaster County Courthouse
Church Social Distancing
Boys and Girls Club food distribution
Children of Smithfield
Parkview Christian Teacher Appreciation Day
Signs on South 16th
Reopening Hair Salon
Lincoln Christian 2020 Seniors
Test Nebraska site
Drive-Thru Career Fair
Center for People In Need food distribution
Former Cop Birthday Drive-by
Masks For Truckers
O Street cruising
Bryan Mobile Testing
Teacher and Staff Parade
Air and Army National Guard COVID-19 testing
Thanks to LJS
Eagle with PPE
COVID-19 State Employee Union
Herbie Husker Runzas
Virtual City Council
Drive-by Easter egg hunt
Watch: Lincoln neighbors sing 'The Old Rugged Cross'
Good Friday Music
Masks on a walk
Watch: A timelapse of the mural at Saro Cider
COVID-19 Workplace Safety
Watch: Steffany Lien twirls at birthday party
Shirts for FEMA
Watch: Hand sanitizer rolls off Innovation Campus assembly line
Although the health department remains concerned about the number of new cases, rate of transmission and number of hospitalizations, officials stress that Lincoln hospitals continue to have the capacity to treat new COVID-19 patients.
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.