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• Experts say that it’s not unusual for a hospital to operate close to its capacity since hospitals continually adjust their available beds and staffing levels to meet patient needs.
• But a large number of COVID-19 hospitalizations creates special burdens for hospitals, because patients must be kept isolated.
Should people be worried that the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations reported in their area might overwhelm health care systems?
Posts on social media would have you believe that there’s no cause for alarm — even if cases of COVID-19 are on the rise near you.
Tampa nurse Erin Marie Olszewski shared such a post on Instagram.
"It’s not unusual for hospitals to sit at max or near max capacity on any given day," Olszewski’s post — a screenshot of one of her tweets — reads. "The media would like you to think this is a new thing, but it’s not."
In an email to PolitiFact, Olszewski pointed to a Johns Hopkins University webpage with weekly hospitalization trends. The data, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, spans a time period from late July 2020 to the present, and "displays the 7-day trend in overall and COVID-19-specific hospitalization occupancy data."
The numbers show a fairly steady level of occupied hospital beds over the past year. "COVID is not the reason for busy hospitals," Olszewski wrote in the email.
But her post suggests that the impact of rapidly increasing COVID-19-related hospitalizations is routine for health care systems. It’s not, and it’s putting an unusual strain on hospitals.
Representatives from hospital associations said it isn’t unusual for hospitals to operate close to their maximum capacity. This is because hospitals are continually adjusting their capacity based on demand.
"They may have some rooms on a floor or in a specific unit that are physically there, but since they aren’t staffed, they aren’t available for patient use," said Marc Lotter, a spokesperson for the Florida Hospital Association. "Should the need rise, hospitals will staff those beds and make them available."
Hospitals are careful to maintain enough capacity for unexpected circumstances and emergencies, Lotter said, but to contain costs, they do not keep rooms staffed or available if they aren’t in use or likely to be needed.
But not all capacity utilization is the same. A heavy load of COVID-19 patients places an unusual strain on hospital capacity.
As of Aug. 11, HHS data indicates that nationwide, about 76.4% inpatient beds in the U.S. are in use — and 10.5% of those beds are in use for COVID-19-specific reasons. Nationally, 75.4% of ICU beds in the U.S. are in use, and 22.2% of those beds are in use for COVID-19.
In Olszewski’s home state of Florida — a recent COVID-19 hotspot — the numbers are far higher: 90.1% of ICU beds are in use, and nearly half of those are being used for COVID-19 patients. Meanwhile, 86.2% of inpatient beds are in use, more than a quarter of them for COVID-19-specific reasons.
"There is no question many Florida hospitals are reaching their max capacity and beyond," Lotter said.
He referenced Aug. 5 data from his group indicating that 60% of hospitals surveyed in Florida were expecting to face a "critical staffing shortage in the next seven days," which he said would affect capacity. Additionally, 27% of surveyed Florida hospitals expected that they would need to expand into "non-care areas" such as conference rooms and cafeterias, to accommodate patients in the next seven days.
In areas where COVID-19 patients account for a high percentage of hospitalizations, there are "implications for everyone who needs care for emergent or non-emergent reasons," said Thomas Jordan, a spokesperson for the American Hospital Association.
"Caring for COVID-19 patients is resource-intensive, including from a materials perspective — PPE, oxygen, etc. — and also from a space perspective," he said. "COVID-19 patients must be isolated from non-COVID-19 patients by either placing them in the same units as other COVID patients or in single occupancy rooms. This makes it more difficult for hospitals to have space for all other non-COVID patients."
Jordan also said caring for COVID-19 patients requires "significant staff resources," and noted that at this point in the pandemic "our doctors, nurses and other staff are exhausted."
Olszewski said, "It’s not unusual for hospitals to sit at max or near max capacity on any given day."
Hospitals continually adjust their available beds and staffing according to demand because over-staffing is expensive. So it is not unusual for hospitals to operate near maximum capacity.
But not all capacity utilization is the same. COVID-19 places additional strains on space, staff and hospital resources, because infected patients need to be kept isolated from others. Hospital systems in parts of the country where the virus is spreading quickly have had to halt other routine procedures and are running out of available beds and staff.
The claim is partly accurate but leaves out important context. We rate this claim Half True.
Instagram post, Aug. 2, 2021
Facebook page for Erin Marie, accessed Aug. 11, 2021
Email with Erin Marie Olszewski, Aug. 10, 2021
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, "Weekly Hospitalization Trends," accessed Aug. 11, 2021
HHS Protect Public Data Hub, "Hospital Utilization," accessed Aug. 11, 2021
Email exchange with Marc Lotter, Florida Hospital Association spokesperson, Aug. 6, 2021
Florida Hospital Association, "Florida Hospital Association COVID-19 Update," Aug. 6, 2021
Email exchange with Thomas Jordan, American Hospital Association spokesperson, Aug. 9, 2021
GAO.gov, "COVID-19: HHS's Collection of Hospital Capacity Data," accessed Aug. 9, 2021
Email exchange with Jessica Farb, the managing director of the Government Accountability Office’s health care team, Aug. 9, 2021
Boston Globe, "Hospitals are canceling elective surgeries to respond to COVID. Here’s what you need to know," Dec. 11, 2020
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