As COVID-19 spreads, UNMC prepares for a shortage in ventilators and hospital beds

Posted at 9:48 AM, Mar 17, 2020

OMAHA, NE (KMTV) — As the number of coronavirus cases continues to increase across the United States, a big challenge doctors could face is the lack of hospital beds and ventilators available.

Local health officials say ignoring this could cause a fatal scenario.

"Things need to dramatically change, you know, in the way we provide care, " Shelly Schwedhelm, Executive Director of Emergency Management and Bio-preparedness for Nebraska Medicine, said.

Schwedhelm oversaw the operations and logistics during the Ebola Outbreak in 2014, when UNMC treated American patients.

Now, she's doing the same, but for the COVID-19 pandemic.

"You begin to look at numbers of 1 to 2 percent of ICU requirements, that's a pretty big number at a 1.9 million population," Schwedhelm said. "Then you look at a fatality number of maybe 5 percent."

She added a majority will see minor symptom.

Nebraska health experts are predicting a wave of patients across the nation over the next 8 weeks.

Schwedhelm says UNMC already works at 90 percent capacity, so hospital beds and other equipment will be stretched.

"Ventilators are very rate limiting. There is not enough, there won't be enough," Schwedhelm said.

It's not just Nebraska hospitals that are short beds and ventilators. this seems to be a theme across the country as health care systems prepare for an influx of coronavirus patients.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. has just 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people.

Health experts predict the pandemic could cause between 10 million and 34 million hospital visits with about a fifth of those patients requiring intensive care.

When asked if she was worried about doctors and nurses having to choose which patients gets a ventilator, Schwedhelm didn't hesitate.

"Yes, and again, it's going to depend on how great we do as a community and a state and how well we social distance to keep that all under control," Schwedhelm said.

She adds that other emergency responders could be swamped, as well.

She advises for people to be prepared.

Coronavirus Resources and Information

Johns Hopkins global coronavirus tracker