COVID-19 and surge capacity in U.S. hospitals



As of April 2020, the United States is faced with the early stages of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Experts predict up to 60% of the population will become infected with a fatality rate of 1% and a hospitalization rate of approximately 20%. Efforts to suppress viral spread have been unsuccessful as cases are reported in all 50 states, and fatalities are rising. Currently many American hospitals are ill-prepared for a significant increase in their census of critically ill and contagious patients, i.e., hospitals lack adequate surge capacity to safely handle a nationwide outbreak of COVID-19. As seen in other nations such as Italy, China, and Iran, this leads to rationing of life-saving health care and potentially preventable morbidity and mortality.

Dr. Adam Blumenberg, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland

Dr. Adam Blumenberg


Hospitals will be unable to provide the current standard of care to patients as the rate of infection with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) escalates. As of April 9, the World Health Organization has confirmed 1,539,118 cases and 89,998 deaths globally; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 435,941 cases and 14,865 deaths in the United States.1,2 Experts predict up to 60% of the population will eventually become infected with a fatality rate of about 1% and a hospitalization rate of approximately 20%.3,4

Dr. Matt Noble, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland

Dr. Matt Noble

In the United States, with a population of 300 million people, this represents up to 180 million infected, 36 million requiring hospitalization, 11 million requiring intensive care, and 2 million fatalities over the duration of the pandemic. On March 13, President Donald Trump declared a state of national emergency, authorizing $50 billion dollars in emergency health care spending as well as asking every hospital in the country to immediately activate its emergency response plan. The use of isolation and quarantine may space out casualties over time, however high rates and volumes of hospitalizations are still expected.4,5

Dr. Robert G. Hendrickson, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland

Dr. Robert G. Hendrickson

As the influx of patients afflicted with COVID-19 grows, needs will outstrip hospital resources forcing clinicians to ration beds and supplies. In Italy, China, and Iran, physicians are already faced with these difficult decisions. Antonio Pesenti, head of the Italian Lombardy regional crisis response unit, characterized the change in health care delivery: “We’re now being forced to set up intensive care treatment in corridors, in operating theaters, in recovery rooms. We’ve emptied entire hospital sections to make space for seriously sick people.”6

Surge capacity

Surge capacity is a hospital’s ability to adequately care for a significant influx of patients.7 Since 2011, the American College of Emergency Physicians has published guidelines calling for hospitals to have a surge capacity accounting for infectious disease outbreaks, and demands on supplies, personnel, and physical space.7 Even prior to the development of COVID-19, many hospitals faced emergency department crowding and strains on hospital capacity.8 The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants at 2.77 for the USA, 3.18 for Italy, 4.34 for China, and 13.05 for Japan.9 Before COVID-19 many American hospitals had an insufficient number of beds. Now, in the initial phase of the pandemic, it is even more important to optimize surge capacity across the American health care system.


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