Hospital strain linked to thousands of excess deaths two weeks later: research

A new analysis estimates that hospital strain during the pandemic is linked to thousands of ensuing excess deaths, signaling the significance of ensuring hospitals do not reach full capacity amid COVID-19 surges.

The research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday predicted that when the nationwide intensive care unit (ICU) capacity hits 75 percent capacity, an additional 12,000 excess deaths could be expected within the next two weeks. 

When hospitals surpass 100 percent ICU bed capacity, the study suggests 80,000 excess deaths would be expected two weeks later. 

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The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency's COVID-19 task force conducted the analysis based on data from July 4, 2020, to July 10, 2021.

Managing hospital capacity continues to be a challenge in different areas of the country — as of Oct. 25, the U.S.’s ICU bed capacity has reached beyond 75 percent for at least 12 weeks running. 

“This means that the United States continues to experience the high and sustained levels of hospital strain that, according to the model’s results, are associated with significant subsequent increases in excess deaths,” the report said.

The research indicates “the importance of controlling case growth and subsequent hospitalizations before severe strain,” the report said, noting the effects of the limited capacity in hospitals “fell more heavily on working-aged adults from marginalized communities.”

The analysis defined excess deaths as the difference between the observed and expected number of deaths in a certain time period. Researchers reported that ICU bed capacity was not the only predictor for excess deaths but was an “important indicator.”

As several hospitals became overwhelmed with admissions in recent months amid the delta variant's spread, some implemented crisis standards of care, providing guidance for providers to prioritize care and sometimes limited resources for certain patients.

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This protocol amid a flood of COVID-19 patients leads “many” preventive and elective procedures to be delayed, potentially negatively impacting those who could have used earlier diagnosis and treatment. 

Colorado activated crisis standards of care specifically for hospital staff last week amid emergency shortages. Idaho and Alaska also implemented crisis standards of care earlier this year to help health care workers distribute resources in stressed hospitals.

Based on the research, the CDC advised state and local officials to take actions to prevent this strain, including by promoting vaccinations and other coronavirus precautions.