Patients Marooned in Emergency Rooms for a Week Because COVID Surge Prevents Transfers

Hospitals are stretched thin after a surge in COVID-19 infections across the U.S. Patients experience long waits for beds in emergency rooms while others are stuck, waiting to be transferred to a different hospital to receive care.

Dr. Richard Watson, the founder of Motient, said it's no longer uncommon for patients to experience long waits for emergency room beds or get transferred elsewhere to receive treatment.

On Friday, more than 40 patients were on the board waiting to be transferred to a different hospital. Some were waiting for a few days while others more than a week, Watson said.

Motient, a company working with Kansas hospitals to help orchestrate transfers, said states such as Minnesota and Michigan have been reaching out to see if there are any beds available in Kansas' bigger hospitals. Often, there isn't.

Some hospitals don't want to accept COVID-19 transfer patients from other hospitals unless they need to be put on a ventilator.

"They know that their beds are at a premium and they have to hold them for the people who need them," Watson said.

The hospitals are struggling to handle the influx of patients due to a shortage of staff and beds, so patients seeking care for other health issues like heart attacks or who need oxygen because of COVID-19 often get left behind, Watson said.

COVID Hospital Bed Wait
Hospitals are stretched thin after a surge in COVID-19 infections across the U.S. Patients experience long waits for beds in emergency rooms while others are stuck, waiting to be transferred to a different hospital to receive care. Above, medics transfer a patient on a stretcher from an ambulance outside of Emergency at Coral Gables Hospital where COVID-19 patients are treated in Coral Gables near Miami, on July 30, 2020.

Jesse Thomas, also of Motient, said that the percentage of hospitals needing help with transfers is higher than ever. He said the transfers also are taking twice as long to arrange as during the summer surge. And things were bad then, he noted.

"When you see a patient that needs a higher level of care and the system doesn't have the capacity for it and the patient waits for days," he said, "it is difficult for that patient. It is difficult for their family. That's just becoming frequent and that is the crazy part because it used to be rare and now it's not rare."

"There aren't any more crazy stories," Watson said. "It's already as crazy as it can be. When you are talking about moving people from Minnesota to Kansas City for treatment. It's like Mayo Clinic in reverse."

He said staffing shortages in nursing homes also are contributing to the bed shortage because it means there is no place to send patients who are improving but still need extra care.

"You can't put somebody in that bed if they can't clean it out," he said.

Dr. Jackie Hyland, the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System's St. Francis campus in Topeka, complained about the problem nursing home shortages were causing on a recent call with Kansas and Missouri hospital officials.

"It causes a backup all the way through to our emergency room and holding emergency room patients there, preventing them from getting admitted to a hospital bed," Hyland said.

Watson said he has never seen a problem like this on such a broad scale.

"You may have a patient here or there that's having a difficulty and the hospital may be in a tight spot, but to have the whole system with people just locked in place for days at a level of care, they really need to move out of, that's a different world for us," he said.

Watson said he anticipated that the capacity issues would only grow worse over the holidays.

"People expect there to be a different story," Watson said. "But you know, here we got it: It's unvaccinated people. Omicron moves through. Nobody's paying attention. They all want it to go away for Christmas. It's not going away. Hospitals are full, getting fuller, probably worse than it was three or four weeks ago, maybe even a month ago, and yet we are still struggling with the messaging to a group of people who are in disbelief that there's anything happening. I'm not sure how it works."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.