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Let’s get one thing straight: when you read that “hospitalizations have hit record highs”, as the Wall Street Journal headline blared Friday morning, they aren’t talking about total hospitalizations. They reference a far more limited set of patients: those admitted either “for” or “with” COVID. And yes, COVID admissions have increased this fall nationwide, and especially in certain hot spots (though some of those are now coming down). Admissions for respiratory illness tend to be highest in the winter months. However, overall hospital capacity utilization has been stable this fall. The same contrast holds for ICU utilization: more COVID patients, but overall occupancy rates have been fairly stable. Several factors account for these differing trends.

Admissions and Utilization

First, take a look at total staffed beds, beds occupied, and beds occupied by COVID patients (admitted “for” or “with” COVID), courtesy of Don Wolt. Notice that COVID patients occupied about 14% of all staffed beds over the past week or so, and total beds occupied are at about 70% of all staffed beds.

Is this unusual? Utilization is a little high based on the following annual averages of staffed-bed occupancy from Statista (which end in 2017, unfortunately). I don’t have a comparable utilization average for the November 30 date in recent years. However, the medical director interviewed at this link believes there is a consensus that the “optimal” capacity utilization rate for hospitals is as high as 85%! On that basis, we’re fine in the aggregate!

The chart below shows that about 21% of staffed Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds are occupied by patients having COVID infections, and 74% of all ICU beds are occupied.

Here’s some information on the regional variation in ICU occupancy rates by COVID patients, which pretty much mirror the intensity of total beds occupied by COVID patients. Fortunately, new cases have declined recently in most of the states with high ICU occupancies.

Resolving an Apparent Contradiction

There are several factors that account for the upward trend in COVID admissions with stable total occupancy. Several links below are courtesy of AJ Kay:

  • The flu season has been remarkably light, though outpatients with symptoms of influenza-like illness (ILI) have ticked-up a bit in the past couple of weeks. Still, thus far, the light flu season has freed up hospital resources for COVID patients. Take a look at the low CDC numbers through the first nine weeks of the current flu season (from Phil Kerpen):
  • There is always flexibility in the number of staffed beds both in ICUs and otherwise. Hospitals adjust staffing levels, and beds are sometimes reassigned to ICUs or from outpatient use to inpatient use. More extreme adjustments are possible as well, as when hallways or tents are deployed for temporary beds. This tends to stabilize total bed utilization.
  • The panic about the fall wave of the virus sowed by media and public officials has no doubt “spooked” individuals into deferring care and elective procedures that might require hospitalization. This has been an unfortunate hallmark of the pandemic with terrible medical implications, but it has almost surely freed-up capacity.
  • COVID beds occupied are inflated by a failure to distinguish between patients admitted “for” COVID-like illness (CLI) and patients admitted for other reasons but who happen to test positive for COVID — patients “with” COVID (and all admissions are tested).
  • Case inflation from other kinds of admissions is amplified by false positives, which are rife. This leads to a direct reallocation of patients from “beds occupied” to “COVID beds occupied”.
  • In early October, the CDC changed its guidelines for bed counts. Out-patients presenting CLI symptoms or a positive test, and who are assigned to a bed for observation for more than eight hours, were henceforth to be included in COVID-occupied beds.
  • Also in October, the FDA approve an Emergency Use Authorization for Remdesivir as a first line treatment for COVID. That requires hospitalization, so it probably inflated COVID admissions.
  • The CDC also announced severe penalties in October for facilities which fail to meet its rather inclusive COVID reporting requirements, creating another incentive to capture any suspected COVID case in its reports.

In addition to the above, let’s not forget: early on, hospitals were given an incentive to diagnose patients with COVID, whether tested or merely “suspected”. The CARES Act authorized $175 billion dollars for hospitals for the care of COVID patients. In the spring and even now, hospitals have lost revenue due to the cancellation of many elective procedures, so the law helped replace those losses (though the distribution was highly uneven). The point is that incentives were and still are in place to diagnose COVID to the extent possible under the law (with a major assist from false-positive PCR tests).

Improved Treatment and Treatment

While more COVID patients are using beds, they are surviving their infections at a much higher rate than in the spring, according to data from FAIR Health. Moreover, the average length of their hospital stay has fallen by more than half, from 10.5 to 4.6 days. That means beds turn over more quickly, so more patients can be admitted over a week or month while maintaining a given level of hospital occupancy.

The CDC just published a report on “under-reported” hospitalization, but as AJ Kay notes, it can only be described as terrible research. Okay, propaganda is probably a better word! Biased research would be okay as well. The basic idea is to say that all non-hospitalized, symptomatic COVID patients should be counted as “under-counted” hospitalizations. We’ve entered the theater of the absurd! It’s certainly true that maxed-out hospitals must prioritize admissions based on the severity of cases. Some patients might be diverted to other facilities or sent home. Those decisions depend on professional judgement and sometimes on the basis of patient preference. But let’s not confuse beds that are unoccupied with beds that “should be occupied” if only every symptomatic COVID patient were admitted.

Regional Differences

Finally, here’s a little more information on regional variation in bed utilization from the HealthData.gov web site. The table below lists the top 25 states by staffed bed utilization at the end of November. A few states are highlighted based on my loose awareness of their status as “COVID “hot spots” this fall (and I’m sure I have overlooked a couple. Only two states were above 80% occupancy, however.

The next table shows the 25 states with the largest increase in staffed bed utilization during November. Only a handful would appear to be at all alarming based on these increases, but Missouri, for example, at the top of the list, still had 27% of beds unoccupied on November 30. Also, 21 states had decreases in bed utilization during November. Importantly, it is not unusual for hospitals to operate with this much headroom or less, which many administrators would actually prefer.

Of course, certain local markets and individual hospitals face greater capacity pressures at this point. Often, the most crimped situations are in small hospitals in underserved communities. This is exacerbated by more limited availability of staff members with school-age children at home due to school closures. Nevertheless, overall needs for beds look quite manageable, especially in view of some of the factors inflating COVID occupancy.


Marc Boom, President and CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, had some enlightening comments in this article:

“Hospital capacity is incredibly fluid, as Boom explained on the call, with shifting beds and staffing adjustments an ongoing affair. He also noted that as a rule, hospitals actually try to operate as near to capacity as possible in order to maximize resources and minimize cost burdens. Boom said numbers from one year ago, June 25, 2019, show that capacity was at 95%.”

So there are ample beds available at most hospitals. A few are pinched, but resources can and should be devoted to diverting serious COVID cases to other facilities. But on the whole, the panic over hospital capacity for COVID patients is unwarranted.