By: Mark Glennon*
How many people are hospitalized with COVID-19?
Regular reporting on that number is absolutely essential for several reasons, but Illinois and some other states are not providing it. A Thursday ProPublica article has the details on this critical failure by Illinois and some other states. ProPublica asked reporters at other publications to help get numbers.
It’s hospitalizations that matter, not the number of confirmed cases that are widely reported every day. Most cases are not at all serious. An Oxford University Study just released concluded that half the population of the United Kingdom may have already been infected, but extremely few got sick enough to need hospitalization. Only one in a thousand victims needed hospitalization, if that study is right.
Case numbers are surging largely because testing is surging in the United States. It’s only in the past few days that tests have become widely available. Initial tests were flawed. Those soaring case numbers, therefore, tell us very little.
Preventing hospital overload is the entire point of “bending the curve” through drastic social distancing and shutdowns now throwing millions out of work. Nobody wants scenes develop here as they did in Northern Italy where triage forced doctors to decide who would live and the sick were left to die. However, it’s hospitalizations, not number of cases, that tell us about that risk. We need the number of hospitalizations and their rate, which can then be projected and compared to available hospital space.
Furthermore, hospitalizations are key to where the federal government targets its efforts. New York, which does provide hospitalization numbers, appears to be in the gravest danger of hospital overload, and is appropriately getting more resources and attention than most other states, perhaps because it has documented its risk.
Finally, hospitalization numbers will be an essential number in deciding when to loosen the emergency shutdown of so much of our economy. If we do that later than necessary the economic disaster will be worse than it need be; do it too early and the human disaster will be worse. We will be driving blindfolded if we make that decision without hospitalization numbers.
Illinois did earlier, on one day, provide a hospitalization number, but it was not clear how accurate it was or how it was trending. When one of the state’s medical experts was asked about that he merely said the rate was consistent with those of other countries. That’s meaningless, however. You can easily find hospitalization rates reported from other countries that vary massively and they are inconsistently reported — some are cumulative totals and some a snapshot.
We need daily hospitalization numbers and we need them now, on both people currently in hospitals and those who have been released. There’s no excuse for not having them.
None of this is meant to imply that current levels of social distancing and shutdowns are too harsh or too lenient. It’s just that policy should be informed by facts — facts we don’t have.
Hopefully, Illinois reporters will respond to ProPublica’s request for help getting hospitalization numbers. Maybe they will ask at Pritzker’s next daily briefing on the virus.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints.
UPDATE: See our response linked here to one journalist’s criticism of this article.
And Governor Pritzker was asked in his daily briefing on Friday when Illinois will provide hospitalization numbers like New York and other states do. He said they have been talking to hospitals and collecting that data piecemeal but they will be “will be working on it this weekend.” Props for being responsive to that request.
It’s important to note that the hospitalization information may well indicate things are even more dire than the other data. Information about one hospital we have obtained is indeed extremely severe.