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Houston hospitals report surge in non-ICU beds for COVID-19 patients

Houston hospitals have seen a recent spike in the number of COVID-19 patients placed in non-intensive care beds, leading some physicians to wonder whether cases are becoming less serious or whether doctors are becoming better at fighting the disease.

The steeper rates of occupancy in the medical surgical, or general floor, populations underscore a worsening public health scenario in Houston and Texas as cases and hospitalizations tied to the novel coronavirus continue to climb. While ICU bed occupancies are still rising by about one-third, non-ICU occupancies doubled in almost half the time, according to aggregate hospital data.

“We cannot have this kind of impact continue indefinitely or we will get in an out-of-control situation,” said Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist.

Across seven medical center institutions, COVID patients occupied 11 percent of ICU beds in mid-May compared with roughly 15 percent on June 16. From May’s end to June 17, general floor proportions of COVID patients surged from 3 percent to 7 percent.

Physicians emphasized that any increase in hospitalizations is worrisome, but that a larger surge in regular hospital bed use versus ICU bed use is better than the alternative.

“If you don’t need to be placed in an ICU and need to go on a ventilator, then that’s obviously a good thing,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

Physicians warn that they can’t yet pinpoint why the rate of increase is higher for general beds, and Memorial Hermann reported not seeing that trend in the way other hospitals did. Dr. James McCarthy, executive vice president and chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann, said a week or two of data is too small of a subset to draw a conclusion.

It’s unclear how the pattern could play out in the coming weeks, given that some patients who are admitted into the general floor could worsen in condition and move to the ICU, he said.

“There’s an ebb and flow as patients come in,” McCarthy said. “The fact that we have a higher percentage of patients across the TMC hospitals on (medical surgical)floor beds doesn’t mean that the illness is less severe.”

The situation is continuing to worsen, as the Houston region on Thursday hit a new record for COVID hospitalizations for the seventh straight day, according to data from the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. About 1,610 people were hospitalized in the 25-county region, and roughly 24 percent of ICU beds were occupied by COVID patients.