'A breath less stressful': Hospital capacity woes persist after tripledemic's peak

Despite flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus rates coming down, hospitals are about as full as they've ever been. 

About 87 percent of U.S. hospital beds were in use as of Feb. 3, according to a CNN report. Prior to the last few tripledemic months, hospital bed use had only surpassed more than 80 percent at one other point during the pandemic, which was at the height of the omicron surge in January 2022. Data tracked by the CDC indicates emergency department visits and hospitalizations for flu, COVID-19 and RSV peaked in early December. 

The reality inside hospitals however, isn't dramatically different. 

"Every day, our emergency room has a backlog of anywhere between 25 and 100 patients waiting for a bed upstairs," Melissa Mattison, MD, chief of hospital medicine at Boston-based Massachusetts General Hospital, told CNN. "So if today, that number was 25, and two weeks ago, it was 100 — yes, that's better, but there's still a long line," she said. "Maybe the patients aren't piled up like sardines in the ER as much when you only have 35 patients waiting compared to 75. But it's still not great." 

Mass General is 99 percent full, and that was true in the years leading up to the pandemic, she told the news outlet. 

There's no doubt the pandemic exacerbated capacity and resources challenges within hospitals, but the problems had been building over the previous decade. Overall, hospitals are seeing greater volumes of high-acuity patients than they have in the past, coupled with labor shortages. In addition, workforce shortages across post-acute care facilities have been a key driver of capacity issues by limiting hospitals' ability to make timely discharges. The uncertainty of what the next phase of the pandemic could look like also plays a role, healthcare leaders told CNN, as many hospitals leave beds open as a buffer.

Without the expanded flexibilities for care the public health emergency declaration enabled, such as more access to telehealth, hospitals would probably be even more packed than they are right now, Nancy Foster, vice president of quality and safety at the American Hospital Association, told CNN. The Biden administration plans to end the PHE in May. 

There were 53,457 ED visits for flu, RSV and COVID-19 in the U.S. for the week ending Jan. 28. This figure hit a peak in early December, when nearly 236,000 people visited the ED. The combined hospitalization rate for the three viruses has been declining for weeks, sitting at 5.5 per 100,000 for the week ending Jan. 28. 

Ms. Foster referred to the decline in respiratory viruses' effect on hospitals as "a breath less stressful" for healthcare workers. 


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