Governors in places seeing huge spikes in coronavirus infections often cite statewide data to assure the public they have plenty of hospital capacity to survive the onslaught, even as the states routinely miss the critical benchmarks to guide their pandemic response.
Public health officials and experts say the heavy reliance on statewide hospital data is a misleading and sometimes irresponsible metric to justify keeping a state open or holding back on imposing new limits.
That is because statewide statistics can be deceiving, especially in large states where individual hospitals can be in crisis mode even while the overall capacity numbers look OK.
Thomas LaVeist, dean of the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, said basing pandemic and reopening policy on statewide hospital bed capacity ”is incredibly irresponsible.”
“To cherry-pick hospital capacity and to use that one metric without the context of number of cases, number of deaths, is shocking,” LaVeist said.
The issue of hospital capacity has gained urgency across the nation this week as Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and other states reported skyrocketing case numbers. Governors have repeatedly invoked hospital capacity in arguing against new business restrictions, though the dynamic began to shift Friday when Texas and Florida clamped down on bars amid an increasingly dire situation with COVID-19.
At the first White House coronavirus briefing nearly two months Friday, Vice President Mike Pence also cited hospitalizations in discussing the outlook for the pandemic.
Two months ago, Pence said 15 percent of patients were being hospitalized. Now it’s about 5 percent. That means the health care system is better positioned to cope with a resurgence in cases, he says.
In Texas, the state health department’s website on Thursday showed 12,951 available beds, 1,320 available ICU beds, and 5,850 available ventilators. What it doesn’t break down is how bleak the situation is in some particular places, including Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city. Hospital beds in Houston are filling so fast that Texas Children’s Hospital is starting to treat adult patients, and 97 percent of ICU beds at Texas Medical Center were in use.
In Miami, Homestead Hospital confirmed Tuesday it was at capacity. The hospital was transferring patients to other hospitals and preparing to convert regular beds to beds for ICU and acute care patients, if needed.
In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has declined to impose new restrictions on business activity or a stay-at-home order, repeatedly citing ample capacity in the state’s hospitals as the reason he is comfortable staying open.
“That’s what’s most important when there’s a rise in cases,” Ducey said earlier this month.