COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said Friday that COVID-19 patients are straining health systems in the state as some hospitals begin postponing elective surgeries.

COVID-19 cases in Ohio have risen to levels similar to last winter, he said, explaining that the delta variant is continuing to drive the current wave.

“It’s important for us to look back and think about how we were living in January, February, and as we think ahead to the future, how important it is for us to take steps to avoid these repeated waves of COVID-19 that place lives at risk and crowd our hospital beds,” Vanderhoff said. “Now, a real concern is that our hospitals are busier than ever."

Vanderhoff was joined Friday for a news conference featuring Ohio’s three hospital zone leads for coronavirus response, who warned that Ohio doctors and nurses could become overwhelmed if the surge does not peak soon.

In central Ohio, four hospitals are delaying some elective surgeries, and one opened an emergency tent to treat ER patients, Ohio State Wexner Medical Center Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Andrew Thomas said. Earlier in the day, a 19-bed emergency department in the region was hit with a rush and had 11 patients waiting for beds who needed to be transferred to other hospitals, Thomas said.

Due to the worsening COVID-19 hospitalization numbers, Ohio hospitals are having to turn down requests from southern states that are flooded with COVID-19 patients. If a patient doesn’t have Ohio roots, Wexner does not have the capacity to take them.

The first call for transfer requests came two weeks ago from Texas emergency management officials, Thomas said.

“They wanted to fly individual patients here on fixed-wing airplanes, jets, because they were out of beds,” he said. “Unfortunately, we knew this train was coming down the tracks, and made the decision to not engage in that discussion to transfer patients from Texas here.”

Calls for patient transfers are coming from multiple other southern states, hospital officials said.

The Cleveland Clinic is accepting a limited number of out-of-state patients, mainly those needing complex transplants, which is a specialty of the health system, said Dr. Robert Wylie, chief of medical operations. Other than that, the Cleveland Clinic's capacity is very limited and the hospitals' forecasts show matters are likely to get worse, he said.

“We had a peak before in the wintertime of about 5,100 patients in Ohio. We are hoping this peaks out about 3,000, but that's only a guess, as our models are only a guess of what's going to happen. It could be more than that, like Florida, which is actually a little bit more vaccinated than Ohio,” he said.

Wylie said that the hospitals in his zone in the northern part of the state have not yet had to defer patients in need of elective surgeries.

Ohio reported 4,855 COVID-19 cases on Friday, as seven-day average infections rose to 3,913. According to the Ohio Hospital Association, 2,127 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Ohio on Friday.

“It feels like where we were in mid-December. It feels like where we hear hospitals in Florida have been, say over the past 4-6 weeks,” Thomas said. “This is going to be a difficult road if cases don't peak soon and hospitalizations don’t peak soon.”