Study: Hospitals at or near full COVID-19 ICU capacity increase by 90% over past few months

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Hospitals have faced massive demand for staff and intensive care unit capacity in recent months, a new study found. (Getty Images)

A new study found a 90% increase in hospitals reaching intensive care unit (ICU) capacity from July through December, with rural hospitals facing the biggest capacity issues.

The study, released Tuesday by the Epic Health Network, looked at ICU occupancy rates at 809 hospitals in rural, suburban and metro areas from July through December. The study also explored the increase in nursing staff demand.

The number of hospitals that reached 80% to 100% ICU capacity increased from 200 in July to nearly 400 in the middle of November.

By early December 2020, over 100,000 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S., the study said.

“Two key variables in understanding the stress to the health system due to new COVID-19 hospitalizations are the availability of staff and ICU beds.”

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The study found rural hospitals that have smaller ICUs are reaching capacity more quickly than hospitals in larger areas are.

“From July to early October, our largest grouping of rural ICUs showed plenty of availability (0%-20% occupancy) now our largest grouping of rural ICUs are at capacity (80%-100% occupancy),” the study said.

At the same time, rural ICU staffing increased by 46% in mid-September, compared with a 24% increase for hospitals in metro and suburban areas.

Nationwide, the study estimates 77,500 nurses are now directly caring for COVID-19 patients each day compared with 22,500 nurses in mid-September, a massive 245% increase.

Metro and rural hospitals increased at a rate of nearly double that of suburban hospitals, with increases of 249%, 282% and 131%, respectively, the study found.

Meanwhile, non-COVID-19 staffing needs are down.

The study relied on data from a portal created by Epic called Pulse Central that aggregates real-time COVID-19 data for public health, reporting on metrics including infections, bed availability and hospitalizations.

Epic noted that the study couldn’t measure certain variables that can strain a system such as staff infected with COVID-19 or stress caring for infected patients.