One of the biggest concerns as COVID-19 becomes more common is that healthcare facilities may be overwhelmed. That’s why we’re all trying to “flatten the curve” by making sure that even if the virus spreads, it does so at a rate the health system can handle.
Propublica has a new tool to compare different areas’ health systems. You can put in your location, and the tool will show one measure of capacity—how many hospital beds are available—against some guesses about how the virus might spread.
It’s important to know that all of the numbers given here are estimates. We don’t know how many people will ultimately be infected, or how fast. Even the best mathematical models don’t take every relevant factor into account. Take it from health policy expert Andy Slavitt (a former director of the Medicare, Medicaid, and ACA systems), who says to pay attention to the general principles rather than freaking out over specific numbers:
Will these numbers be right? They do not have to be.
People will argue over the assumptions used. I have some scientists tell me it’s the best we have. Others will say too conservative. EVERYONE will acknowledge we just don’t know. 8/
— Andy Slavitt @ ???? (@ASlavitt) March 18, 2020
To acknowledge that uncertainty, the ProPublica tool runs through nine different scenarios, and crunches the numbers on likely available hospital beds for each. For example, here’s the graph for my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. At the longest timeframe and lowest infection rate, we’re good. In other scenarios, the need will be more dire.
I’m sharing this tool not because I think everybody should freak out, but because it’s a good way to get a visual sense of some of the scenarios that public-health and policy people are looking at. If we can increase our capacity to deal with patients, that will improve care for everybody: those with COVID-19 and those with other medical conditions. Cancelling elective procedures may be one way to make room; building new clinics may be another. The details are yet to come, but it’s not too early for the people in charge to start planning ahead.