RALEIGH — Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, experts and activists have encouraged efforts to “flatten the curve” with the goal of mitigating a spike in hospital visits that could overwhelm the medical resources. Dire warnings of ventilator shortages saw President Trump invoke the Defense Production Act to force U.S. manufacturers to produce more of the potentially life-saving devices. The N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, which has the task of compiling data on these resources in the state, including hospital beds and number of tests performed, is providing only partial data at the moment.
Flattening the curve means decreasing the risk of transmission to spread out the number of infected individuals over time. Experts warned that if we don’t do that, the increased demand for medical care would outstrip the supply of hospital beds, mechanical ventilators and Intensive Care Unit beds.
Various predictive models, including some which erroneously predicted overwhelming hospitalizations early in the outbreak, have been relied upon by state and federal leaders to help make decisions on efforts to brunt the effects of the virus on citizens.
On Friday, March 27, Gov. Roy Cooper issued a stay-at-home order for all North Carolinians. That same day, NCDHHS added a hospital bed tracker to its website. Initially, the tracker listed 18,256 total beds, 7,184 of them empty, and included a disclaimer that the data included 81% of hospitals. North State Journal reached out for clarification on which hospitals had provided data.
“The information on the web is what we have available right now,” said Kelly Haight Connor, communications manager for NCDHHS. “I don’t have a hospital breakdown at this time.”
Inclusion or exclusion of a few large hospitals could dramatically affect hospital availability figures. NCDHHS has not produced any information to determine whether their data set is missing large urban hospitals or small rural facilities.
On Monday, March 30, the NCDHHS hospital bed tracker showed just 15,398 beds, with 6,235 empty, based on 64% of hospitals reporting. Those figures showed a decrease of 2,858 in the state’s total capacity based on data from less than two-thirds of the state’s hospitals.
With current worst-case scenario models showing peak hospitalization at 7,987, the missing data could inform leaders as to whether N.C. is prepared to weather the surge or not. Because NCDHHS won’t release the data that underpins its hospital bed and availability numbers, the total of available beds could be over 8,500 and the total number of beds could be over 21,700. Without having complete data or knowing the hospitals reporting, the accuracy of predictive models is diminished.
Since the launch of the site, North State Journal has asked NCDHHS for the list of hospitals reporting their figures and NCDHHS did not provide the information. When the percentage of reporting hospitals went down by 17% on Monday, North State again asked NCDHHS about the change.
Connor responded, “It’s my understanding this number will change every day based on the percent of hospitals reporting. We continue to work with those across the state to get accurate, verified data on case counts and information from hospitals to present online.”
The numbers stayed the same from Monday to Tuesday and NSJ again reached out to NCDHHS for a list of hospitals which have provided data and for clarification on why the total number of beds when down by almost 3,000 beds since the state’s capacity should be relatively static. As of Tuesday afternoon, NCDHHS had not provided names of hospitals used to create the data set or why they reduced the number of beds.