ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
While hospitalization rates and COVID-19 infections have been falling nationwide, hospitals in some places are still over capacity. Kentucky is one of them. As Corinne Boyer of member station WEKU reports, hospitals there continue to be overwhelmed by unvaccinated patients.
CORINNE BOYER, BYLINE: The 99-bed hospital in the university town of Morehead has been over capacity for the last seven weeks. Dr. Thadis Cox, the medical director of specialty services there, says to make room for all those patients, the hospital converted its post-surgery recovery unit.
THADIS COX: That's turned into a surge ICU because of the number of COVID patients that we have. We have an old oncology suite that we have ready to turn into another surge area for COVID patients. So unfortunately, we just don't have the staffing at this point in time to staff that area.
BOYER: Nearly all of those patients are unvaccinated. Kentucky's vaccination rate is 60%, four points lower than the national average. It's been slowly increasing since the delta variant emerged. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear has deployed more than 500 members of the state's National Guard to dozens of hospitals. He says they and other medical workers from the federal government sent at his request will continue to be needed for weeks to come.
ANDY BESHEAR: I certainly anticipate that our hospitals will need help to some degree for the next 30 days, which hospitals when and where can move. But I certainly don't anticipate a shorter timeline.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have one (unintelligible) left.
BOYER: Surrounded by the Appalachian foothills, the hospital in Morehead has a royal blue tent out front hooked up to a generator strapped to concrete barriers. On a warm fall day, medical workers treating COVID patients in it are dressed head to toe in personal protective equipment. Physician's assistant Jennifer Hardin says they had been treating patients in their homes, but then demand grew quickly.
JENNIFER HARDIN: So that's when we discussed setting up this tent out here and being able to do a large amount of patients at one time and just setting up, really, a clinic.
BOYER: Sixty-eight-year-old Ella Hatton, a former nurse, is being seen at the tent.
ELLA HATTON: I do trust medicine. Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't be here to get this monoclonal antibody if I didn't trust medicine. But I just opted not to take the vaccine because of all the different side effects that have been proven.
BOYER: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says serious side effects that could cause a long-term health problem are extremely unlikely following the COVID-19 vaccinations. Some short-staffed hospitals in Kentucky have been relying on traveling nurses, the rate for which can be up to $200 an hour. And when hospitals are this full, they have to cancel elective procedures that typically provide most of their revenue. Nancy Galvagni, president of the Kentucky Hospital Association, said hospitals lost $1 billion in 2020. Testifying recently at the state legislature, she asked them for relief funds from the Federal American Rescue Plan Act.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NANCY GALVAGNI: As helpful as an appropriation would be, it will not be a panacea. But it would provide needed immediate relief to enable our hospitals to expand their frontline staff and to relieve the strain on capacity and care at the bedside.
BOYER: But because Kentucky lawmakers have already allocated all of the state's American Rescue Plan dollars, Governor Beshear says lawmakers need to find another source of funding. Meanwhile, several of the state's hospitals remain over capacity.
For NPR news, I'm Corinne Boyer in Lexington.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANNAH PEEL'S "ARCHID ORANGE DWARF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.