OKLAHOMA CITY — As the number of COVID-19 patients continues to grow, Oklahoma hospitals are reporting their intensive care units are feeling the squeeze.

“The ICU beds are very tight in the major facilities,” said LaWanna Halstead, vice president of quality with the Oklahoma Hospital Association.

She said there is ICU capacity across the state, but space is scarce in the metropolitan areas and other spots. Bed availability can change hourly, and ICUs are often busy, but COVID-19 is straining the state’s hospital systems.

“Definitely our COVID cases have ramped up (and) that has created pretty full ICUs,” Halstead said. “The ICUs stay pretty full anyway on any given day and with the additional COVID patients, it really is quite tight.”

State health officials reported Wednesday that 749 Oklahomans remained hospitalized for COVID-19. The total number of confirmed cases, meanwhile, jumped to 102,614. The state has reported 1,132 deaths.

Integris hospital system, which has locations statewide, reported no open ICU beds on Wednesday morning, Officials said they were treating 129 COVID patients at its facilities.

The seven-day ICU bed average availability in Oklahoma County, meanwhile, was 5.8% as of Monday, the Oklahoma Department of Health reported.

“OSDH is closely monitoring hospital capacity and working with hospitals to ensure they have the resources they need to give the best quality care to all Oklahomans,” said Matt Stacy, a consultant with the agency. “There are a lot of factors that can influence data on any given day, and we will continue to monitor hospitalizations closely to see if state intervention is required to ensure hospital beds are available to COVID patients who need them.”

OU Medicine has started to use the sixth floor of a new adult patient tower to treat some COVID-19 patients, CEO Chuck Spicer said in a statement. The health system has implemented many changes related to the pandemic, including capacity management, he said.

“Our patient census changes on an hourly basis, and our team is managing patient care and patient transfers with our hospital partners in the community,” he said. “Bed capacity is directly related to staffing availability. We are proactively coordinating with our partners in government and the private sector and will continue to make all efforts to take care of patients in our region.”

The ICU squeeze, in part, is being exacerbated by the state’s decade-long nurse shortage, Halstead said.

Halstead said availability of ICU beds depends on staffing levels. There is a lot of competition between hospitals for nurses, and the trained medical professionals are often traveling to other places where they can make more money.

Larger hospitals, meanwhile, have had to quarantine existing staff for possible COVID-19 exposures, she said.

The metro areas are particularly feeling the strain . That’s because rural Oklahomans are now being brought in for treatment in areas that don’t have an ICU or the capacity to treat COVID patients.

Halstead said the plan was to initially treat outlying patients at hospitals in their home region, but those with a higher level of illness have to be sent to the metro for more specialized treatment.

Halstead said hospital officials are begging Oklahomans to wear masks, practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings. If Oklahomans don’t take precautions, she said state leaders could be forced to ban elective surgeries like in the spring.

“We do not want to get to that point,” she said. “To preserve the system, we’re just begging the public to take the precautions necessary to prevent cases.”

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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