Two-thirds of all hospital beds are already occupied

By John Commins, HealthLeaders Media

Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s estimated 728,000 hospital beds already are occupied, according to a new report from the Urban Institute that provides a county-level view of bed capacity.

The study comes amid growing fears that the strengthening coronavirus outbreak will overwhelm the nation's healthcare system.

"As federal, state and local policymakers prepare for large increases in demand for inpatient hospital care, they need to understand the variation in bed capacity across states and communities—which will likely not match the spread of the virus," said Kathy Hempstead, senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the study.

"Now is the time to identify contingency plans," she said.

The report, and an accompanying interactive county-level map, show that bed availability per 1,000 people varies a great deal across urban and rural areas, states, and counties across the nation.

Earlier this week, a study from Array Advisors estimated that most states will run out of available ICU hospital beds by mid-April. Washington, a state with the second-most confirmed cases in the country, is expected to hit its ICU capacity by March 30. New York, a state with over 930 cases, is expected to hit its capacity by April 5.

The Urban Institute analysis estimates that in 2018, the United States had 728,000 medical and surgical hospital beds available to the public, or 2.2 hospital beds per 1,000 population. However, only 36% of these beds were unoccupied on a typical day, leaving just 0.8 unoccupied beds per 1,000 people.

The report cites experts who are urging hospitals to improve capacity by: creating internal rapid-response groups; transferring equipment to ICUs; prioritizing non-COVID-19-related patients; cancelling elective surgeries; speeding discharges; using military aid; and finding alternative spaces such as halls, conference rooms, and amphitheaters to increase capacity.

RWJF wants policymakers and local officials to use the map to identify regions with the greatest capacity challenges.