Mar 18, 2020 - Health

No part of the U.S. has enough hospital beds for a coronavirus crisis

A man prepares an intensive care unit surrounded by beds and other hospital equipment.
There's a growing fear the U.S. will have to ration hospital beds like Iran or Italy (above). Photo: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Every corner of the U.S. is at risk for a severe shortage of hospital beds as the coronavirus outbreak worsens, according to new simulations from Harvard, mapped out by ProPublica and the New York Times.

Why it matters: Total nationwide capacity for health care supplies doesn't always matter, because hospitals in one area can help out neighboring systems when they're overwhelmed by a crisis. But these projections indicate that won't be an option with the coronavirus — everybody will be hurting at the same time.

By the numbers: Harvard's projections show if 50% of all currently occupied hospital beds were emptied and sizable percentages of Americans were infected, the country would need at least three times more beds to care for everyone.

  • "No market would be spared," Harvard's Ashish Jha wrote.

Those models line up with James Lawler, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who forecasted in a recent presentation to hospital insiders that the U.S. may eventually have as many as 96 million cases, resulting in 4.8 million hospitalizations. He told Axios he stands by those projections.

  • The U.S. has 924,000 total hospital beds, or less than three beds for every 1,000 people. Roughly 5% of those beds are in standard intensive care units, where the sickest coronavirus patients would need to go.

Hospitals closures have laid a groundwork that could make this problem worse, reducing the total capacity in a given area while shifting more patients into the hospitals that remain.

  • For example, after Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia closed last year, surrounding hospitals had to take on those patients and don't have a lot of room for a coronavirus surge.
  • "That [closure] has put a particular strain on the regional health care system," said Darilyn Moyer, the head of the American College of Physicians who works at Temple University's health system.

The bottom line: "I don't think our health system is prepared," Lawler said. "If we can reduce the surge, we can potentially help our hospitals, but they have a long way to go."

Go deeper: The coronavirus crisis has to focus on "flattening the curve"

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