Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Study: Not enough hospital beds in region

- By Kris B. Mamula and Anya Litvak

Pittsburgh area hospitals would be overrun with a projected 197,000 patients, each requiring a 12-day stay on average, if the region is struck by a moderate outbreak of COVID-19, a new study found.

The influx of patients would require 6,570 hospital beds if the outbreak lasted 12 months — 2.4 times more than the 2,740 beds available — in the moderate impact scenario mapped by the nonprofit news platform ProPublica. The scenario uses data compiled by Harvard Global Health Institute, a Cambridge, Mass.-based outfit that is part of Harvard University.

The crush of patients would easily overrun the Pittsburgh region’s hospital intensive care beds, with COVID-19 patients needing 3.4 times more than the number of specialize­d beds available to treat the most severe cases.

As of noon Friday, there were 268 cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvan­ia, but state Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the total was expected to rise rapidly. “We’re going to see a surge before the decline,” she said during a news conference.

In the Harvard Global scenario, COVID-19 would infect 40% of the region’s adult population during a 12-month period. That was on the low end of an estimate that has been used by Allegheny County Health Department Director Debra Bogen, who has said between 40% and 60% of the region’s population could come down with the disease.

In 2018, the Pittsburgh region had 8,130 general hospital beds, including 1,080 designated for intensive care, according to the study. Sixty-six percent of the beds were already filled with patients, leaving 34% open.

An estimated 8% of the region’s adult population would require hospitaliz­ation during a moderate outbreak.

Eleven of Pennsylvan­ia’s 67 counties, including Centre — home to Penn State University — have no hospital intensive care beds, according to a review released Friday by Kaiser Health News. Indiana County has 12, Clarion, seven.

Historical­ly, Western Pennsylvan­ia has been described as having too many hospital beds, and hospitals in the region have closed for various reasons. Reopening Ellwood City Medical Center or Allegheny Health Network’s Suburban General, for example, might be possibilit­ies to accommodat­e overflow patients from other institutio­ns.

Strategies to share resources are still being developed: Senior physician leaders from AHN, Butler Health System, Excela, UPMC and others have been meeting to better address site and community needs.

In a worst-case scenario, if 60% of the population nationwide is sickened and the virus spreads within six months, the U.S. would need more than seven times the number of hospital beds than are available, the Harvard study states.

COVID-19 is a highly contagious respirator­y disease that emerged in December in China. The virus has quickly spread worldwide.

The disease, which has no proven treatment, is many times more lethal than seasonal flu, according to studies, although experts say COVID-19’s actual mortality rate may be lower after factoring in additional test results as they become available.

Urban hospitals would be stressed by such a wave of patients, but the larger institutio­ns may have the flexibilit­y to stretch their resources by shifting patients around and freeing up beds.

Rural hospitals have less flexibilit­y.

Punxsutawn­ey Area Hospital, which houses Jefferson County’s five intensive care beds, has just three other beds in negative pressure rooms, which are sometimes used for patients with infectious diseases, Chief Financial Officer Jack Sisk said.

“We’re generally busy with seasonal flu in the spring,” said Mr. Sisk, who said the 49-bed hospital’s patient census was about 50%.

“Yes, we have some capacity, but it’s not like we have a lot of available capacity.”

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