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Experts: S.D. health-care system could be overwhelmed if COVID-19 takes hold

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If the COVID-19 pandemic grows rapidly in South Dakota — as it has in other states and nations — the state’s hospital systems are likely to be quickly overwhelmed, according to medical experts in South Dakota and elsewhere.

It is unknown if the state has enough ventilators or intensive-care beds, and patients in rural areas or smaller cities would likely need to be transported to urban areas to receive proper care for the disease, they say.

South Dakota’s public health and medical providers say they are confident in the health-care system’s ability to handle a surge in COVID-19 patients, but experts worry that if an outbreak grows too fast, hospitals will be unable to properly house and care for all patients.

Nationally, an analysis of hospital capacity by researchers at Harvard University found that even a moderate outbreak, in which 40% of adults contract the virus, could overwhelm hospitals all over the country.

Though specific numbers are difficult to come by, national statistics and survey data suggest that there simply is not enough room in intensive care units or enough mechanical ventilators in the country, let alone in South Dakota, to serve all the patients that would need help breathing if the spread of the COVID-19 virus cannot be controlled.

The number of hospital beds and ventilators available in South Dakota, and how many of those beds can be used for intensive care, isn’t publicly available, and state officials and medical providers refuse to release the data.

State public health officials have access to a database called HAv-BED that tracks hospital bed availability in near-real time. Department of Health spokesman Derrick Haskins told South Dakota News Watch that assigning a hard number to ICU and ventilator availability is difficult because the numbers change multiple times per day. The state also maintains a stockpile of medical supplies for emergencies that does include ventilators, but Haskins wouldn’t say how many ventilators were in the stockpile.

Two of the state’s major hospital systems, Avera Health and Sanford Health, also declined to disclose to News Watch how many ventilators they currently have available.

“The reality is, even though we have excellent health care here … there are still more residents in the upper Midwest than there are beds and ventilators,” said Dr. Jeremy Storm, an infectious disease specialist from Sioux Falls. “The numbers, I think, are pretty dramatic. There is, approximately, a 20% hospitalization rate, 20% of hospitalized patients requiring an ICU bed and approximately 50% of them are ending up on a ventilator.”

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