Barrier to reach max hospital capacity low, health officials try to mitigate amid coronavirus pandemic

Health officials have repeatedly said communities need to slow the spread of COVID-19. A look at the hospital capacity of five Southern California counties shows why.

If just 1.3% of the population of Los Angeles and the surrounding area is infected with the novel coronavirus at one time, and 15% of them are hospitalized, then hospitals could run out of beds, according to an ABC7 Eyewitness News analysis of data from California Health and Human Services and population data.

This analysis doesn't factor in that a large share of those hospital beds may already have someone in them - someone who needs care for something other COVID-19.

And infection and hospitalization rates may climb higher.

"It looks right now here in L.A. County that somewhere between 20 and 25% of the folks that have been diagnosed with COVID-19 have been hospitalized," said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, at a briefing on March 18.

Epidemiology professor and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics Marc Lipsitch estimated a moderate infection rate could be 20-60%.

The bar to reach max hospital capacity is low, so officials are urging communities to slow the spread to keep infection rates at one time as small as possible. The county is also aggressively adding to its capacity.

"Hospitals prepare for surges in patients in many ways," said Dr. Christina Ghaly, the director of LA County Health Services at the March 18 briefing. "They cancel elective surgeries, they discharge in-patients as quickly as possible, they bring on additional staff and they seek flexibility from the state and other regulatory authorities in order to use spaces that aren't typically used for in-patient."

Across southern California counties on an average day, there are just under 2 beds per 1,000 people. But Italy, who has a capacity of more than 3 beds per 1,000 people, has seen COVID-19 cases push its healthcare system toward collapse.

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Even as hospitals increase capacity for patients, what's happening in Italy is a warning to the U.S. that simply adding more beds and staff isn't enough. The rate of spread must be slowed.

"We need to be careful and diligent and respect all of the social distancing guidance so that we can help prevent the spread of the infection and seek to flatten the curve and by doing so preserve the healthcare system and the lives of those around us," said Dr. Ghaly.
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