Hospitals are fuller than they have been throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a CNN analysis of data from the US Department of Health and Human Services. But as respiratory virus season sweeps across the United States, it’s more than Covid that’s filling the beds this year.
More than 80% of hospital beds are in use nationwide, jumping 8 percentage points in the past two weeks.
Hospitals have been required to report information about their capacity since mid-2020 as part of a federal effort to track the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hospitals were over 70% full for the vast majority of that time. But they were 80% full at only one other time: in January, at the peak of Omicron’s US ramp-up. In January, around a quarter of hospital beds were being used for patients with Covid-19. But now only about 6% of beds are being used for Covid-19 patients, according to HHS data.
The broader respiratory virus season is in full swing in the United States. All but six states are experiencing “high” or “very high” respiratory virus, as seasonal influenza activity remains “high and continues to increase,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number of people admitted to hospital with flu during the week of Thanksgiving was almost double the number of admissions during the previous week. And the latest monitoring data likely doesn’t reflect the full effects of holiday gatherings, as it only captures through Nov. 26, two days after Thanksgiving.
Nancy Foster, vice president for quality and patient safety for the American Hospital Association, says the influx of flu patients is one of the main reasons hospitals are filling up. Added to this are the challenges posed by labor shortages and a backlog of patients that have delayed care in recent years.
“Rates are higher because we are seeing flu patients in many parts of the country and it has brought a lot of older adults and a few young children into hospitals. Additionally, RSV is filling pediatric beds and cribs with patients who are sicker now due to the postponement of care during Covid-19, which required more intensive and complex care,” she said Friday in a statement to CNN.
“Workforce shortages have not only made it more difficult for hospitals, but have also reduced the number of patients who can be cared for in nursing homes and other post-acute care facilities. This results in patients spending more time in hospitals, waiting to be discharged to the next level of care, and limiting our ability to make a bed available to a patient who truly needs hospitalization.
In a letter to the nation’s governors last week, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra noted that influenza and other respiratory viruses are “increasing the strain” on the nation’s health systems. Becerra wrote that the Biden administration ‘stands ready to continue assisting you with resources, supplies and personnel’ – but he stopped short of making a formal emergency declaration, as officials demanded children’s health last month.
Hospital bed capacity can change from day to day as hospitals adjust the number of beds they make available based on staffing and other resources.
As of Thursday, around 10% of hospitals are reporting a “critical staff shortage”. More than 90% of hospital beds are used in Rhode Island and more than 85% of beds are occupied in eight other states: Washington, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Georgia, Missouri, West Virginia and Oregon.
Pediatric hospital beds have also been busier than usual for months. About 76% of children’s hospital beds are in use, compared to an average of about two-thirds full in recent years.
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