Maps reveal how US hospital beds could fill as coronavirus spreads

Maps show how most hospital beds across the US could will be full with coronavirus patients in just six months – but ‘flattening the curve’ will stop wards being completely overwhelmed

  • The US is taking steps to prevent the US health care system from being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients
  • Harvard Global Health Initiative data shows just how quickly hospital beds in various cities across the US will fill 
  • Hospitals on coasts will be most quickly overwhelmed, but if the spread can be contained to 20% of the population over 18 months, they may stand a chance
  • However, if 60% if the population is infected in the next six months, every hospital in the US is likely to be stretched past capacity 
  • An expert explains how the US could ‘flatten the curve’ and keep as many hospital beds as possible open for the inevitable influx of patients  
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

Coronavirus is well on its way to overwhelming US hospitals, but the capacity of health care systems varies widely from state-to-state and even city by city, and new data reveals which areas will be hit hardest.  

The research compiled by experts at the Harvard Global Health Institute compiled data that shows just how critical ‘flattening the curve’ of the pandemic in the US is to keeping hospitals functional. 

If just 20 percent of the population is infected within six months, hospital beds in nearly every part of the country will be full, and around 50 percent of states will have about twice as many patients as beds. 

But if the curve can be flattened, and the infection rate can be kept to 20 percent over the course of 18 months, states will have enough beds to treat everyone – although by a slim margin. 

So far in the US, more than 9,000 Americans are infected with coronavirus. That’s less than half a percent of all adults in the US. 

But rates have been rising rapidly as the virus spread undetected in US communities and as more tests become available to detect patients. 

If infection rates aren’t controlled – sooner than later – there could be double or triple the number of coronavirus patients US hospitals have beds to treat, vivid ProPublica maps reveal. 

If just 20 percent of the US population is infected with coronavirus over the next 18 months (top left), hospitals across the country might just barely have enough beds to treat them. But the more quickly the virus spreads to 40% or 60% of people, the more likely there will be twice as many patients or more than there are beds (dark red), ProPublica maps show 

Coronavirus is now in all 50 US states, after West Virginia reported its first case on Tuesday, meaning no health care system will be immune to its impact. 

The number of Americans that die of coronavirus is very much dependent on how many will be able to be treated in hospitals, a fact that’s triggered the Trump administration to ask all health care professionals, dentists and patients to cancel any non-essential appointments. 

Health care systems in each region, state and even city in the US will be impacted differently by the pandemic’s spread. 

According to the data from Harvard, the coasts will be hardest hit, first. 

Even if coronavirus infections are contained to 20 percent of the population over the course of 18 months, hospitals in areas like Manhattan, New York, and San Francisco, California, will see all of their beds fill up, or even overflow. 

At the further extreme, if the spread of the virus is not contained, and 60 percent of the population is infected within six months, then every hospital in the US is likely to be overwhelmed well beyond its capacity. 

The difference between those two scenarios relies largely on what measures to stop the spread are taken now and going forward, and how long they can remain in place. 

Hospitals in many cities, including this one in Brooklyn, New York, are preparing for surge capacity 

US Navy hospital ships like the USNS Mercy are ready to be deployed to act as floating housing for coronavirus patients in the US 

‘Is it possible for us to put into place strong social distancing measures for six months? That’s going to be extremely difficult,’ Dr Julie Swann, head of North Carolina State University’s department of industrial and systems engineering told 

Dr Swann, who was a scientific advisor during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, added: ‘Does putting these measures into place for two or four weeks extend the peak [of the pandemic in the US] and reduce the spread to go to a more favorable situation? 

‘The answer is no, and that is my answer from looking at this disease and multiple models.’ 

In China, coronavirus’s spread does seem to have slowed, and activities are beginning to resume, slowly, nearly two months after the outbreak’s epicenter, Wuhan, was the first city to be locked down. 

And Dr Swann anticipates that that may trigger a new wave of the disease. 

‘Areas of China have just begun to lift their interventions, activities aren’t back to full-scale – I think everyone is waiting to see whether cases will start rising again,’ she said. 

Of course, there are fundamental difference between the US and China – better understanding of a new disease that hit the US later, contrasts in smoking rates, and the differing was that people move throughout cities and regions of each country – and these are among the factors that will determine how coronavirus’s spread proceeds.  

Utah hospitals too have created additional negative pressure chambers. They’re not yet over capacity but hospitals across the US are preparing for that possibility 

Now more than 9,000 people in the US have now been infected with coronavirus and 146 are dead 

‘Starting points’ – when coronavirus arrives in various states and cities in the US – ‘measures put into place, weather – can all change things,’ said Dr Swann. 

‘But I currently am expecting that we will have shortages of hospital beds in many locations across America.’ 

She expects that the coasts – where cases were first reported – and urban areas – where people have more social contact – will be be hit hardest first, but nowhere will be spared entirely. 

As is the case with most disease, places of economic disadvantage and lower education levels, with higher densities of of older people and higher rates of chronic disease and smokers will also be especially strained. 

‘It’s difficult to say which of these things is the most important driver,’ said Dr Swann. 

‘But what I think is also true is that the disease is likely to touch mot communities in America – and I do mean a lot.‘ 

As it progresses however, different regions will be affected differently, in ways the Harvard and ProPublica models can’t even account for. 

Once it’s all over, if we were to look back at the communities most impacted by the disease, I think we’d find multiple kinds of communities that will be hit hard,’ says Dr Swann. 

Already Sloane Kettering Memorial – the leading cancer hospital in the US – is running out of personal protective gear for its doctors 

‘That will include low-income communities in both urban and rural communities and even some high income communities with a significant elderly population with more severe outcomes from the disease who need these resources for longer.’ 

‘In addition to those differences in the supply and demand for beds of the population…I think there will be other kinds of decisions that will impact the situation here and that includes interventions put into place by local areas and how well communities respond to those…so individual decisions will matter, not just supply and demand.’ 

New York, California and Washington have closed down businesses where people tend to gather and made efforts to enforce social distancing – but it’s still up to their citizens to comply. 

In an effort to protect hospitals from demands that far outstretch their supplies of resources and beds, the Trump administration has called for the cancellation of all non-essential medical procedures and expanded coverage for telehealth services. 

On Wednesday, the administration also announced that it had some 200,000 ventilators stockpiled, but plans to increase that number via the Defense Production Act, which will also allow the production of about one million mass and additional personal protective equipment. 

However, ‘estimates of how many ventilators are needed at the nationwide level aren’t really a good estimate of how many there are at a community level and there isn’t good visibility on those ventilators,’ said Dr Swann. 

In other words, there isn’t a single repository that tells how many ventilators are in hospitals in various cities, states and hospitals, so it’s not clear how many are needed or how those numbers differ from place to place.   

To find out how ready your area hospital is, visit Propublica’s coronavirus project.     

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