By Erik Sass, TES Editor-in-Chief
Fears of a “second wave” of COVID-19, including in parts of the country that have not yet been badly hit, are growing in response to two nearly simultaneous events: the lifting of lockdowns and the wave of protests over George Floyd’s death. The mainstream media is fanning the flames with ominous stories of “spikes” and “surges” in a dozen states. But these sensational reports are focusing on the wrong thing. They emphasize the total number of confirmed cases or total hospitalizations, instead of a much more important figure: ICU utilization rates. The difference between these metrics could be the key to safely reopening America’s economy.
Mainstream news organizations have noted that the total weekly number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases are rising in multiple states. This is the case in Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. But, as the Wall Street Journal correctly pointed out, this often reflects an increase in testing, and not a sudden spike in the spread of the virus.
More importantly, the bare number of positive rest results and non-ICU hospitalizations doesn’t tell us anything about the severity of the disease across different populations and areas. And that is the factor that determines whether a region is experiencing a true public health crisis. The metric that best answers that question, just as in the earlier stages of the pandemic, is what percentage of ICU beds are occupied.
Where there is spare ICU capacity, the system can cope. Where ICU beds are maxed out, the local healthcare system is facing collapse. This was the original purpose of distancing and lockdowns: to “flatten the curve” to avoid overwhelming hospitals, and especially their ICUs. And it remains our best guide to when and how to reopen.
So what are the actual ICU utilization numbers – a subject where the mainstream news media has mysteriously fallen silent? A quick survey of total ICU head counts reveals that they are not nearing crisis levels. Even in Arizona, the media’s current poster child of a “hot spot” – a total of 1,285 patients are in ICUs, including COVID and non-COVID patients. This is around 80% of the state’s capacity — admittedly higher than the routine occupancy rate of around two-thirds, but little changed from the number three weeks ago, and far short of the terrible figures reached in New York City in early April; COVID patients account for just 37%.
In North Carolina, ICU utilization for all causes is at just over half of its total capacity of 3,223, with COVID patients representing 18%. California, another alleged hotspot, has 1,325 COVID cases in state ICUs, taking up 16% of total ICU beds. In Texas total ICU utilization is 44%, including 16% for COVID patients. Mississippi has 160 COVID patients in ICU, equal to 17% of the state’s total capacity.
Other states singled out as experiencing “spikes” and “surges” have even more room to spare. South Carolina has 170 COVID patients in ICU, or about 12% of its total ICU capacity of 1,459. In Arkansas there are 59 COVID patients in ICUs, representing 11% of the state’s 826, while in Alaska only 9% of ICU occupants have COVID. Kentucky has 81 COVID patients in ICU, or 6% of its total 1,300-bed ICU capacity. Utah also has has 6% of available ICU beds taken up by 29 COVID patients . Oregon has 39 cases, under 5% of its capacity. Montana currently has seven COVID hospitalizations, both ICU and general. It has a total capacity of 248 ICU beds.
The data shows mainstream media reports of a “second wave” in these states are misleading. While the total number of confirmed cases is indeed increasing, the strain on these states’ healthcare systems isn’t anything like the ordeal New York City faced earlier this spring.
The reasons for this difference are unclear. It’s possible that the virus is “attenuating,” growing less severe over time, due to the same evolutionary mechanism that caused the original SARS virus in the early 2000s to become less deadly. New evidence from Italy supports this theory.
The mainstream media’s motive may be pure sensationalism, or there may be a more nefarious political agenda at work. Either way, these alarming headlines ignore the truly informative facts. This not only frightens the public needlessly, potentially complicating public health response — it jeopardizes America’s desperately needed economic reopening, and with it the livelihoods of tens of millions of people .
Erik Sass is Editor-in-Chief of The Economic Standard. Previously he worked as a reporter and editor covering the media business. He has also authored three history books for general audiences.