Fewer Than 40 ICU Beds Available Statewide Amid COVID Surge

Arkansas hospitals are struggling to find enough staff to care for patients.

Close up of doctor holding hand and comforting Black patient in hospital bed

Only 37 Intensive Care Unit beds were available statewide as of noon Monday. The Arkansas Department of Health reported 81 additional COVID-19 hospitalizations yesterday, the largest single day increase since the start of the pandemic. Statewide there are 1,220 hospitalizations. A record high 1,371 hospitalizations were recorded Jan. 11, 2021.

Bo Ryall, president and CEO of the Arkansas Hospital Association, told the Senate and House Committees on Public Health, Welfare and Labor yesterday afternoon that the message from hospitals is clear.

“Hospitals are full. They’re at capacity. They’re having a hard time serving the patients that they have,” Ryall said.

As COVID-19 cases have surged during the last month, Ryall said the main challenge for hospitals has been staffing. Arkansas hospitals are competing with each other as well as other states and the travel nurse industry. While availability is low, the rate of pay is “extremely high,” Ryall said.

“It’s gone up 47 percent in the last month. We’ve seen rates for ICU nurses go anywhere from $72 an hour to $112 an hour and I’m sure that’s increasing steadily,” he said. 

The way to compete is to raise pay, but it’s a challenge for hospitals to find the money to compete at that level, Ryall said. Additionally, health care workers are needed in other states experiencing surges in COVID-19 cases like Texas and Florida.

Arkansas has experienced its own spike in cases in recent weeks. ADH reported 844 new cases and 42 virus related deaths Monday as active cases dropped to just under 19,000 statewide. The sharp increase in cases is being caused by the Delta variant, which ADH’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, calls “a game changer.” In addition to being more transmissible and more likely to cause severe disease, it’s also infecting more children.

Roughly 19 percent of the state’s active cases are in children 18 years of age and younger, Dillaha said. Around 11 percent of cases are impacting children under 12, a group that has not been approved for COVID-19 vaccination. 

Arkansas Children’s was treating 21 COVID-19 patients at its two hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale yesterday. Of those, 16 are eligible for vaccinations, but none are vaccinated. Eight were in the ICU in Little Rock and five were on ventilators. 

While 21 patients is below Arkansas Children’s recent peak of 24 patients, president and CEO Marcy Doderer said there are several concerning trends among their patients.

“They are sicker than what we saw in previous months and at the beginning of the pandemic, and that is now coupled with a very unusual summer season of high respiratory illnesses that are causing children to be hospitalized as well,” Doderer said.

More nurses are needed to help care for the increased patient load statewide and while Arkansas may lose some health care professionals to higher wages, they’re also losing nurses who are leaving the profession altogether due to the stress of the pandemic.

“They’re tired and they’re having a hard time rebounding and enduring as you usually expect because it seems to be never-ending,” Doderer said. “We are seeing nurses leave the industry at a faster pace than ever before.”

Rep. Fred Allen, a Democrat from Little Rock, has seen firsthand what Arkansas health care workers are facing. Three months ago, a member of Allen’s family was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“If she had not made it to Baptist hospital, she wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “And I just want to sincerely thank you all from the bottom of my heart for all the hard work that you are doing.”

Reducing the spread of the virus to keep from overwhelming the state’s hospitals is going to require the implementation of several tactics including vaccinations, wearing masks and practicing social distancing, Dr. Dillaha said. 

More than 41.5 percent of Arkansans 12 years of age and older are fully vaccinated according to ADH. About 12 percent of vaccines have been administered to African Americans and less than 7 percent have given to Hispanics.

More COVID-19 data and resources are available at the Arkansas Department of Health’s website.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.