September 22, 2021

Here’s why adding more hospital beds doesn’t equal more patient care - and why you should be concerned

During his press conference on Tuesday, Gov. JB Pritzker cited the rapid spread of SARS-2-CoV and how it relates to dwindling hospital capacity.

People may look at the capacity percentages and not understand why that’s more serious than it appears.

But simply looking at the data for the region’s bed capacity doesn’t show the entire picture, according to Jeffrey R. Softcheck, health care consultant.

Softcheck said non-COVID patients might stay in the hospital an average of five days – or eight to 10 days if those patients are in the ICU.

But because of the complications COVID patients may have, the length of their hospital stay might be extended. So the average of a five-day stay in the hospital could become nine days. For the ICU that stay could be more than two weeks, Softcheck said.

However the concern isn’t simply one of having enough beds for all patients, COVID and non-COVID. The greater concern is having enough staff to care for all the patients in those expanded number of beds.

“You still have to have the right nurses and caregivers to deal with those patient populations,” Softcheck said.

Even if a hospital can increase bed capacity, it still needs the staff. And now hospital workers are starting to catch COVID in their own communities, even though safety protocols are in place at work, Softcheck said.

"They’re being exposed to COVID in their normal capacity at the supermarket or any other place they have to go, which is leading to a potential workforce shortage," he said.

On Wednesday, Keith Hartenberger, system director and public relations for Edward-Elmhurst Health, said the number of patients being treated for COVID-19 at Edward-Elmhurst Health are higher than they've ever been.

And staffing is one of the biggest concerns, Hartenberger said in email..

"We are seeing a challenge due to staff testing positive for COVID-19 at higher rates than they did in the spring,” Hartenberger wrote. “Contact tracing tells us the majority of these cases are community acquired and not due to exposure at work. In fact, the rise in cases among our staff mirrors the rise in the community numbers.”

In Monday's Herald-News, Silver Cross Hospital's CEO Ruth Colby said Silver Cross can always make room for more beds, but cannot create more nurses and other hospital employees overnight.

"Today, we have over 60 individuals that are not able to come to work because of contacting COVID in the community," Colby said during Gov. JB Pritzker's daily press conference on Monday.

Softcheck pointed to the “dire situation” in Wisconsin, where the entire state is running out of ICU beds. He said Illinois is trying to avoid that situation with the mitigations.

But Illinois could be in that situation two weeks from now, he said. If a region is at 25 percent today, it could be at 15 percent in two weeks. Softcheck said the issue becomes serious once a region is under 20 percent of bed capacity.

On Wednesday, 11% of the South Suburban regions (Will and Kankakee counties) medical/surgical beds are available and 16% of ICU beds were available.

“Under 10 percent is really critical,” Softcheck said. “It’s what we’re facing right now.”

On Wednesday, the North-Central region (Bureau, Fulton, Grundy, Henderson, Henry, Kendall, Knox, La Salle, Livingston, Marshall, McDonough, McLean, Mercer, Peoria, Putnam, Rock Island, Stark, Tazewell, Warren and Woodford counties) had 36% of medical/surgical beds are available and 36% of ICU beds.

Also on Wednesday, Morris Hospital & Healthcare Centers announced all of its ICU and intermediate care beds were full.

On Wednesday, Morris Hospital announced that it had postponed three surgeries scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday of this week because those surgeries involve an overnight hospital stay and the hospital does not have beds for those patients.

Once a hospital's capacity becomes really low, hospitals may have to make critical decisions on who does and does not receive care, he said.

“That’s what you’re dealing with when you get under 10 percent for your capacity,” Softcheck said.

Softcheck said people need to return to the “flatten the curve” mentality, take precautions and “lead with empathy.”