As the more transmissible, but apparently milder, Omicron variant becomes increasingly common, surges in cases may not translate as directly to strained hospitals, especially in highly vaccinated places. But if cases rise high enough, or enough people are vulnerable or unvaccinated, hospitals and I.C.U.s will fill up.
This week’s dataset may not yet capture the effect that holiday gatherings and travel have had on the number of U.S. residents who are very sick with Covid-19. For the last two weeks of 2021, the Transportation Security Administration said it screened an average of almost two million travelers per day — nearly twice as many as in 2020.
Because days pass between when a person becomes infected and requires hospitalization, and because lags in reporting may have been exacerbated by the holidays, the picture may become clearer with the dataset that the Health Department is expected to release Jan. 10.
See how the pandemic has affected recent hospital capacity in the map below, which shows data reported by individual hospitals. Health officials have said that the data should not discourage sick people from seeking care.
|No hospitals in map view||–||-||–|
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data. A hospital may not appear if it does not report this data to H.H.S., if its data was reported through a parent hospital or if its location information was not available. Percentages above 100 may occur when hospitals report patients beyond their normal limits. Some patient counts are not available because H.H.S. obscures weekly totals fewer than four. Circle size on the national map view corresponds to the hospital’s total I.C.U. capacity.
The agency’s dataset shows detailed geographic information on Covid-19 patients in hospitals. This is something public health officials have long said would be crucial to responding to the epidemic and understanding its impact.
While these numbers provide an important measure of capacity and reflect figures that hospitals have provided to the federal government, experts working with the data said that the situation may have changed since occupancy levels were reported over the seven days leading to last Thursday. Some hospitals have added additional surge capacity that may not be reflected in baseline capacity figures.
The number of usable I.C.U. beds can be limited by the number of nursing staff members available to tend to intensive-care patients, a figure that is not explicitly included in the dataset. “I think the important thing about this current phase of the pandemic is it’s not so much the hospital capacity shortage that’s the issue. It’s really a shortage of personnel and healthcare workers,” said Thomas Tsai, an assistant professor of health policy at Harvard University.
The national average I.C.U. occupancy in 2010 was 67 percent, according to the Society of Critical Care Medicine, though the occupancy baseline changes depending on the place, time of year and size of hospital. The table below shows a sample of state policies and guidelines at different levels of I.C.U. occupancy.
|70||New York regions must have no more than 70 percent of I.C.U. beds occupied before a phased reopening can begin.|
|75||Hospitals in Massachusetts may have to reduce or suspend elective procedures and services if statewide I.C.U. occupancy exceeds 75 percent.|
|80||Nashville aims for no more than 80 percent I.C.U. occupancy in its reopening metrics.|
|85||During a surge in cases last winter, California issued a regional stay-at-home order when local occupancy reached 85 percent.|
|90||Wisconsin opened a field hospital when I.C.U.s in parts of the state were more than 90 percent full.|
|95||Experts say maintaining existing standards of care for the sickest patients may be difficult or impossible at hospitals with more than 95 percent occupancy.|
A note from H.H.S. staff accompanying the data release cautioned that the numbers should not discourage sick people from seeking care. “Hospitals have protocols in place to keep patients safe from exposure and to ensure all patients are prioritized for care,” it said.