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Hospitalizations hit historic high

'Staggering’ number of patients has officials urging alternatives to ER for non-emergencies

By CJ HADDAD - | Jan 11, 2023

Local health officials on Wednesday detailed why hospital beds have become scarcer in recent weeks as an unprecedented number of patients are being treated.

During a press conference at Gulf Coast Medical Center, Lee Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser said hospitals are at “nearly 100% capacity.”

Gonsenhauser said contributing factors include the usual rise in patients this time of year due to a seasonal influx of residents, a slew of viruses, and an increase of COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past few months.

“Thankfully, the most recent spike (in COVID-19) has been trending down, but the overall increase, along with seasonal visitors, has brought additional challenges for us that have placed a strain on our hospital capacities and our health care resources,” Gonsenhauser said.

Health officials noted that of the roughly 1,700 beds currently in use, only 80 are for COVID-19 hospitalizations. Prior to the pandemic, Lee Health had never had 1,500 patients being treated at one time. At the height of the pandemic, that number climbed to 1,674. Last week, Lee Health was treating 1,750 patients.

“We are seeing an incredible volume of patients,” said Lee Health Chief Officer of Hospital Operations, Armando Llechu. “(Some) because they were delayed access to care while the pandemic was taking place. This year, upper-respiratory issues flew, viruses (have seen) high numbers. We are experiencing a much greater surge of patients this year as we did last year. We’re managing it better. We learned a lot of lessons. But the numbers are staggering.”

On Tuesday, he said Lee Health emergency departments saw more than 1,040 patients, and is hopeful that members of the community will look for the most practical place to seek medical help, including places other than the ER.

“That’s been the trend over the past few weeks,” Gonsenhauser said. “Every single patient who arrives at our facilities and emergency departments is treated as quickly as possible, but emergency departments can have long wait times for non-life-threatening conditions.”

Care teams triage patients based on how critical their needs are when they arrive, Gonsenhauser said, adding, “Patients with the most critical needs are going to be treated first.”

Non-critical issues could see longer wait times.

“Those patients with lower-acuity illnesses.. .may end up experiencing a longer wait,” Gonsenhauser said. “Triaging is incredibly important to assure that we get patients the right care, at the right time, in the right place, and we thank you all for bearing with that process.”

Those experiencing a life-threatening illness or injury, including difficulty breathing, chest pain, stroke-like symptoms, persistent vomiting or abdominal pain should call 911 or seek immediate medical attention, health officials said.

But not all medical needs require a trip to the ER.

“Many emergency room visits can generally be avoided,” Gonsenhauser said. “We as a health system are always trying to expand our offerings and resources to assure we have alternative sites of care when and where it makes sense.”

Llechu said national statistics show roughly four in every 10 patients who go to an emergency department should have, and could have sought care at another facility.

“At Lee Health, we are trying to be good stewards of our health system, our staff, but more importantly, of your time,” Llechu said. “If we can get you to the right setting, for the right care, at the right time, it is what is in your best interest, and in the best interest of every patient that is seeking care in the ER.”

Options other than the emergency room include:

Lee Convenient Care – LCC operates four locations throughout the county that are open seven days a week, require no appointment and offer extended hours.

Lee TeleHealth – This service is available 24/7 from your smartphone, computer or tablet. Visits are $49 dollars, and patients can see a physician in minutes for any of the same ailments they would use a walk-in clinic for. If needed, the physician can also make a referral or write a prescription.

DispatchHealth – Lee Health also offers a mobile healthcare service to community members in Lee County, provided through DispatchHealth, a national provider of in-home medical care. Through the service, patients can be treated at home for many conditions that are commonly treated in urgent care settings.

Primary care physician – Patients can call their physician office to make an appointment if not experiencing an emergency.

For more information on Lee Health, visit www.leehealth.org.

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj