Emerging COVID-19 data suggests new treatments and increased knowledge from physicians are shortening hospital stays and reducing the virus’s mortality rates. Reports like these may seem like a relief amid the rising tide of COVID-19 cases in the United States. Still, lower mortality rates are only possible if the hospital system remains intact. As COVID-19 patients flood into hospitals, this promising data can quickly take a turn for the worst.
In November 2020, the number of daily national new COVID-19 cases shattered records from earlier in the pandemic, often repeatedly breaking records in consecutive days. Unlike the New York epicenter in the spring of 2020, outbreaks are occurring nationwide. This includes rural areas virtually untouched by the pandemic’s first wave. In some rural areas, hospital capacity is so low that even a small outbreak threatens to overwhelm the hospital system.
Hospital capacity is the number one concern for many state and local leaders who know that a percentage of the rapidly rising cases will require hospital care. Even if hospital stays are shorter and treatments are more effective, an influx of patients could quickly overwhelm both the physical number of hospital beds and the available medical providers like doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists.
If too many people seek hospital care simultaneously, shorter stays will not be enough to avoid overwhelming hospital systems. If hospitals are at capacity and can no longer provide measured care to patients, mortality rates may reach unprecedented levels. Large outbreaks may force regions to open field hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients or even turn patients away in the grimmest of situations. The result could be a public health crisis that outpaces the worst of the New York outbreak in March and April of 2020.
Until vaccines are available to large portions of the American public, social distancing, mask wearing, testing and contact tracing will be essential to prevent a public health catastrophe in the United States.