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ICU Capacity: Why Does It Matter?

In the past two weeks, COVID-19 restrictions and public health orders are dominated by one metric: ICU beds availability. This metric has jumped to the forefront over case incident rate, test positivity rate, and other metrics the state was tracking in the past 6 months. Why is ICU bed availability so important when the number of new cases breaks records just about everyday?

Losing the capacity to take in new ICU patients leads to a dramatic drop in the level of care a hospital can provide to its patients. This effect is felt throughout the entire hospital, not just the COVID-19 ward.

California has taken several measures to ensure it has surge capacity in case more hospital beds are needed; however, the number of beds is not the limiting factor hospitals are concerned about. Staffing is an even scarcer resource that beds since not all hospital staff are trained in ICU protocols. Even if a hospital can allocate more ICU beds it may not have the staff to properly care for the larger number of ICU patients. Hospitals can redeploy staff within its network to staff the new ICU beds, but this is a zero sum game. Any gains means there are losses in other areas of the healthcare system; thus result in a decline in the level of care provided to all patients.

While COVID-19 has captured most of the attention in the past 9 months, heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses continue to affect people. Hospitals can suspend elective surgeries, but there are other patients with illnesses that require constant care as well as patients suffering from emergencies or accidents that require ICU-levels of care. Lack of ICU capacity means these patients may not receive the level of care they need to properly care for the illness or heal their injuries.

Lastly, increasing number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients means healthcare workers have increasing risk of infection. Healthcare workers is a population that we cannot lose in large numbers or else there will not be enough personnel to care for patients.

Now is the time to work together and take care of one another. We must all make some sacrifices in the coming weeks and months to make sure that we decrease the burden on our healthcare workers so they can care for people who are sick and care for themselves. Let's:

Stay home as much as possible

Avoid mixing with other households

Wear a face covering that covers the nose and mouth when outside of your home

Maintain physical distance of 6ft or greater when outside of your home

Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds


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