ICU beds running critically short as COVID-19 cases surge

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More than 1 in 3 U.S. residents live in a locality where hospitals are nearing their limit for intensive care beds as coronavirus cases continue to surge, The New York Times reports, citing federal data.

A Times analysis found that hospitals that serve communities of more than 100 million people had fewer than 15 percent of their intensive care beds available last week. Ten percent of U.S. residents live in areas where such beds are either completely occupied or at least 95 percent occupied, with the shortages concentrated in the south, the southwest and the Midwest.

“There’s only so much our front-line care can offer, particularly when you get to these really rural counties which are being hit hard by the pandemic right now,” Beth Blauer, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Centers for Civic Impact, told the Times.

“This disease progresses very quickly and can get very ugly very fast. When you don’t have that capacity, that means people will die,” she added.

A surge in hospitalizations has accompanied the overall upward trend of infections, with hospitalizations doubling since early November, according to data collected by the COVID Tracking Project.

Several counties in California’s San Joaquin Valley have hit full ICU capacity, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday, after Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said last week that stay-at-home restrictions would take effect for any region where ICU capacity dips below 15 percent.

In Mississippi, meanwhile, health officials said in November that the capital of Jackson had almost fully depleted its ICU capacity, with only 11.9 percent of the state’s 888 adult ICU beds available for patients. 

Total U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations have topped 100,000 since last week, according to the COVID Tracking Project, including 19,396 intensive care patients.

Some of the most devastating effects of the shortages have been felt in states with lower populations. North Dakota, which has the nation’s highest rates of infection per capita, has had available ICU beds in the single digits at points in November.

Jeffrey Sather, chief of medical staff at Trinity Health in Minot, N.D., said the facility has had to devote an entire floor to coronavirus patients, with other hospitals in the state too full themselves to accept any transfers.

“There’s no place for them to go,” he told The New York Times.

Some densely-populated areas are in similarly dire straits, with University of California San Diego Medical Center reporting just nine available ICU beds as of Monday.

“A lot of health care workers have been concerned about this, about the lack of compliance, and now we’re seeing it play out, and you just sort of feel resigned,” Associate Chief Medical Officer Chris Longhurst told the Times. “You’ve got to go to work every day and help the people who need hospital care, but we wish that it had stopped upstream.”

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