Media outlets frequently blast headlines about the shortage of hospital beds due to the surges in Covid-19 cases. Right now, the delta variant is being blamed for taking nearly all the ICU beds in many states. But, is the novel coronavirus entirely to blame for high occupancy and low bed availability in hospitals?
Prior to the arrival of coronavirus on our shores in the spring of 2020, New York state removed over 20,000 hospital beds. This change took place over the previous two decades, with budget cuts and insurance changes as the main drivers. The number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds hasn’t been increased in 20 years – in fact, the total decreased in recent years. There were 3,043 ICU beds in 2000, but now there are only 3,000.
Bed shortages plague hospitals across the pond as well. The United Kingdom lost 15,000 hospital beds since 2010. Back in June of 2019, the National Health Service (NHS) declared a need for 10,000 more beds to treat the needs of an ageing and growing population. This was before the coronavirus was on anybody’s radar. Hospitals resorted to treating patients in hallways and used temporary beds year-round, not just during the peak winter season. Surgeries were cancelled last minute as emergency directives funneled beds toward other patients.
The coronavirus and its many strains aren’t the first illness to overwhelm hospitals. The flu epidemic of the winter of 2017-2018 sent people to the hospital in every state.
“We are pretty much at capacity,” Dr. Alfred Tallia of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey told Time magazine in 2018. “I’ve been in practice for 30 years, and it’s been a good 15 or 20 years since I’ve seen a flu-related illness scenario like we’ve had this year.”
Then as now, hospitals asked staff to work overtime, set up triage tents in parking lots, restricted visitors, and canceled elective surgeries. Alabama declared a state of emergency and California set up surge tents outside of their emergency rooms to treat flu patients.
While the influx of Covid-19 patients has strained hospital systems, the shortage of space for patients can’t be blamed entirely on the novel coronavirus. Placing a higher priority on maintaining a sufficient number of hospital beds during normal times would have left the healthcare industry better able to handle a sharp rise in any contagious disease. Governing bodies that closed down hospitals and converted the buildings into housing, which happened in New York in 2013, and policies that favor trimming budgets over providing an adequate number of beds for growing populations need to shoulder some of the responsibility.
The shortage of hospital beds, especially for ICU patients, is alarming but has been two decades in the making. Covid-19 exposed, not caused, the need to reinstall beds in high population areas. A sufficient number of beds would help alleviate panic about the virus overwhelming hospitals, people being treated in drafty tents, and help avoid the total disruption of life as we know it.