Are Hospitals Actually Being Overrun By COVID-19?

(Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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The delta variant wave of COVID-19 ravaged under-vaccinated American communities, particularly in the south, leading to frequent media reports of overwhelmed hospitals and fully-occupied ICUs.

The question of just how overwhelmed hospitals are varies from location to location. Media reports highlighted anecdotal cases of individuals being denied care due to a lack of beds, or high stress on healthcare workers facing an influx of patients, but such incidents were not equally distributed across every state.

Florida was particularly frequently criticized during the delta wave. The state saw daily case numbers surge 33% higher than its previous peak during the height of the delta wave in August, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

Stories were written about overflowing hospitals in the state, and CDC data shows that hospitalizations more than doubled in August in the sunshine state from its previous peak.

Christina Pushaw, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ press secretary, denied that Florida hospitals were ever under a catastrophic strain.

“Hospitals are not ‘overflowing’ in Florida and have never been. Hospitalizations peaked in mid-August, and the figures have declined steadily since then,” she told the Daily Caller Sept. 16. “We have seen over a 50% reduction in new hospital admissions since the state-run mAbs (monoclonal antibody) treatment sites started opening in August.”

Eighty-one percent of inpatient beds were in use at 268 reporting hospitals in Florida at the time of publication, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 13% of those beds were in use for COVID-19 cases. While both those numbers are above the national rate of 78%, neither is out of line with typical hospital capacities, and both are down from the August peak.

AdventHealth in Florida released a statement in July claiming that the state’s high hospitalization numbers weren’t reason for alarm.

“It is typical for hospitals to have capacity figures in the 90th percentile even in pre-COVID times, so these numbers do not cause for concern or alarm,” the statement said. “While we have seen an increase in hospitalizations in Central Florida over the last few weeks, we still have significantly fewer COVID patients compared to what we saw during the peak. Even during the peak, at no point did we reach capacity.”

Research done prior to the COVID-19 pandemic supports this assessment. A 2013 meta-analysis of 16 studies published by Australian researchers found indications that optimal ICU capacity is around 70-75%.

A 2019 presentation given by a pair of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare (NMH) executives found that NMH’s average occupancy rate at 9 a.m. fluctuated between 82-92%, depending on the day of the week. (RELATED: Unvaccinated 11 Times More Likely To Die From COVID-19, New CDC Study Says)

While Florida’s total hospital capacity is a few percentage points higher than the national average, its ICU capacity is at 87% as of publication, according to The New York Times. The national rate is 68%.

Another often-discussed state is Texas. In the lone star state, 81.12% of hospital beds were occupied at the time of publication, 17.19% with COVID-19. Like Florida, those numbers are higher than the national average, but only by a few points. However, according to the NYT, ICUs in Texas are at 95%.

The data suggests that while hospitals broadly aren’t overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, there are enough serious cases making their way to ICUs to put substantial strain on those facilities in some states. A recent Veteran’s Affairs study found that nearly half of all COVID-19 hospitalizations are for asymptomatic or mild cases, but with more than 75,000 patients in hospitals nationwide for COVID-19, there are apparently enough serious cases to still stress ICUs in some areas.

Texas officials expressed more concern than those in Florida. “When we started receiving data from hospitals on 4/11/20, there were 2,368 adult ICU beds available statewide,” Lara Anton, Senior Press Officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said. “[As of Sep. 15], there were 326 adult ICU beds available statewide.” (RELATED: Pfizer Seeking Vaccine Approval For Kids By End Of The Month, Says Shot Is Safe And Effective For Ages 5-11)

“The majority of our COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated and their hospital stay could be avoided if vaccinated. Our patients are younger (20’s, 30’s 40’s, etc.) and have high acuity levels as evidenced by 50% of our adult ICU beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients,” said Stephen Love, President and CEO of the DFW Hospital Council. “An 80 to 85% ICU capacity is good. Our ICU’s in North Texas are currently quite full.”

Nationwide, vaccinations are leading to less hospitalizations. The current hospitalization total of 75,000 is with a 7-day new case average of over 117,000. Last time average cases were at a similar level, in early February, hospitalizations were north of 85,000.