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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher April 3, 2020

No, empty hospital beds do not indicate COVID-19 is 'fake crisis'

If Your Time is short

  • There are hospitals with significant numbers of empty beds — but not because of a conspiracy that exaggerates the coronavirus outbreak.

  • Hospitals have canceled non-urgent surgeries and other procedures in an effort to free up bed space for an expected influx of coronavirus patients.

As the death toll from the coronavirus continues to climb, some conservative commentators questioned how busy American hospitals actually are. On Twitter, photos and video clips purporting to show nearly empty hospital parking lots were tagged with #FilmYourHospital. More of the same on a YouTube "citizen reporters" video

And on Facebook, there were posts such as this one with dark warnings of a conspiracy:

"Nurses reporting hospitals are empty mostly. Fake crisis for real goverment (sic) planned agendas. Wait for them."

Included were screenshots of other claims that medical professionals are saying their hospitals are empty, or at least slower than usual.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

We found some hospitals with significant numbers of empty beds. But that’s due largely to hospitals keeping beds empty as they prepare for an expected influx of patients who have COVID-19 disease.

"Canceled elective procedures and admissions are freeing up bed space to prepare for (the) surge," Dr. James Lawler, an infectious diseases expert and internal medicine professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told PolitiFact. "In regions where hospitalization rates from COVID are still relatively low, this is resulting in more empty beds — which is good. The surge is coming to them as well." 

There is plenty of evidence showing how extensive the outbreak is and is expected to continue to be. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has estimated between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans could die from the pathogen even as communities adopt stronger social distancing measures.

And an analysis from ProPublica and the Harvard Global Health Institute found that even in a "moderate case" scenario — where 40% of the adult population contracts the disease over the course of a year — the country would need to more than double available hospital beds by freeing up existing beds or adding new ones.

The report also noted that America lags behind China and Italy, where the epidemic has overwhelmed hospitals, when it comes to hospital bed capacity.

The U.S. has 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people, compared with 3.2 in Italy and 4.3 in China. There are also stark regional differences in hospital capacity. Modeling suggests that hospitals in more urban communities will likely be more stressed, but  larger hospital systems may also have more flexibility to stretch their resources if they shift patients around to free up beds.

Within days of the Facebook post, one U.S. Navy hospital ship had arrived in Los Angeles, and another was two days from reaching New York City, both to provide relief from the coronavirus pandemic, with space for 1,000 beds each. 

Again, there are examples of hospitals with empty beds, but the key reason is that they are clearing out space to treat coronavirus patients. A few we found:

  • On the day of the Facebook post, only 70% of the beds at the University of Nebraska Medical Center were occupied, spokesman Taylor Wilson told PolitiFact. "It's only because we've canceled elective procedures to prepare for a surge of coronavirus patients," he said.

  • Two days after the Facebook post, the local newspaper in Syracuse, N.Y., about 250 miles northwest of New York City — where the outbreak is worst — reported that Syracuse’s three hospitals had a total of 300 empty beds. That was attributed to cancellations of scheduled non-emergency surgeries and postponements of other hospital admissions, as well as a decline in seasonal flu activity.

  • Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston was only about 65% occupied, well below its usual 99%, because it was preparing for a surge of coronavirus patients, WBUR radio reported three days before the post.

  • In West Virginia, some hospitals are having cash flow problems and at least one, Charleston Area Medical Center, has cut the hours of some employees because of fewer patients and procedures, a statewide radio network reported.


Our ruling

A Facebook post amid the surging coronavirus outbreak claimed nurses are reporting mostly empty hospitals in the United States and suggested it shows a conspiracy to exaggerate the coronavirus outbreak. 

There are hospitals with significant numbers of empty beds, but that’s because they are canceling non-urgent surgeries and other procedures in an effort to free up bed space for an expected influx of coronavirus patients. The COVID-19 outbreak is real.

We rate the statement False.

Our Sources

Facebook, post, March 28, 2020

Email, Dr. James Lawler, an infectious diseases expert and internal medicine professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and director of international programs and innovation at its Global Center for Health Security, April 1, 2020

WBUR radio, "With Empty Beds And An Expandable ICU, Mass. General 'Looks Down The Barrel' Of Outbreak," March 27, 2020 

Media Matters for America, "Right-wing media figures spread "empty hospitals" theory to downplay the threat of coronavirus," March 30, 2020

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Cases in U.S.," April 1, 2020 

PolitiFact, "Hospitals refute surgeon general’s claim about nursing furloughs," April 2, 2020

ProPublica, "Are Hospitals Near Me Ready for Coronavirus? Here Are Nine Different Scenarios," March 17, 2020

USA Today, "Thousands of US medical workers furloughed, laid off as routine patient visits drop during coronavirus pandemic," April 2, 2020

West Virginia Metro News radio network, "Beds empty, revenues slowed at hospitals in West Virginia; CAMC announces hours reduction measures," March 30, 2020

Email, Taylor Wilson, senior media relations coordinator, Nebraska Medicine, April 1, 2020

YouTube, "Citizen reporters go do what the media won't! Mirror," April 1, 2020

Raw Story, "Coronavirus truthers caught in epic lies and distorted stories about hospitals crisis," March 30, 2020

PolitiFact, "Hannity wrong that health care system is ready as is for coronavirus," March 18, 2020

NBC News, "Coronavirus deniers take aim at hospitals as pandemic grows," March 30, 2020, "As coronavirus patients cram NYC hospitals, Syracuse hospitals still have 300 empty beds," March 30, 2020

PolitiFact, "‘Leaked documents’ don’t prove US hospitals preparing for 96 million coronavirus cases," March 13, 2020

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More by Tom Kertscher

No, empty hospital beds do not indicate COVID-19 is 'fake crisis'

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