The number of hospital beds available at any time across Colorado is, on average, less than one-third of the beds authorized in the state’s nearly 100 hospitals, according to the latest hospital data, raising concerns that an influx of patients during a pandemic could strain the system.
“Like numerous states across the country, we too are concerned about the possible shortage of hospital beds,” said Gabi Johnston, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We periodically survey hospitals on bed numbers and supplies, but those numbers change frequently so we are working diligently to assess our real-time bed and supply availability.”
Meanwhile, hospitals are preparing to temporarily exceed their licensed capacities if the need arises and state regulators allow it. That would free up additional beds if necessary, said Julie Lonborg, senior vice president of communications for the Colorado Hospital Association, which collected the hospital bed data.
“We anticipate that if all comes to pass, we could need as many as 800 ICU admissions and about 2,000 admits overall,” she said. “If that’s all at once, that’s super challenging, but over time, that’s easier to manage. That’s our hope.”
On Wednesday, the hospital association said hospitals with a marked increase in patients with respiratory illness were moving to a “surge response.” That means conserving personal protective equipment, postponing elective procedures, adding critical care beds, discharging patients when possible, and increasing staffing.
Few hospitals across the state actually have as many beds available as they are licensed to hold, according to CHA data, in part because staffing levels are too low.
For example, Denver Health was licensed for 555 beds, had 342 beds available and 77% of those on average were filled, according to the 2015 data. University of Colorado Hospital was licensed for 698 beds, actually only had 558 available and 82% of those on average were occupied.
On average, Colorado’s hospitals have had a normal occupancy rate of about 63%, according to CHA data from 2015, the most recent available. That means that based on the 2015 data, which showed 12,616 licensed beds and 9,879 of those beds actually available, only about 3,600 beds were unused and could be filled with a patient.
The occupancy percentage has likely changed only slightly over the last five years, Lonborg said. The total number of licensed hospital beds statewide has dropped slightly over the last five years to 12,558, according to CDPHE data.
A new Harvard Global Health Institute study, done in tandem with ProPublica, estimated that if about 40% of the Denver-area population was infected with the novel coronavirus over 12 months, there would be about 195,000 patients with roughly 6,510 needing hospital beds.
It’s all got hospitals trying to figure out the available supplies, staffing and space.
“There are three levels of resources (that hospitals have),” Lonborg said. “They have their own hospital; many are part of a system that draws from each other; and now many are … working with each other to share space and resources.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is tagged with helping should local health care experience problems, so available beds at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora would be in play. Among its clinics and treatment areas, it has 182 in-patient beds for acute and critical care, as well as 30 beds in its spinal cord injury clinic, according to Turner Construction, who helped build it.
Ambulatory surgery centers and some critical-care hospitals could potentially offer beds. That has led care providers such as Kaiser-Permanente to reassess how it’s approaching the crisis.
As of March 23, Kaiser is closing 19 of its 29 facilities to better focus on areas that will need additional resources, according to Dr. Amy Duckro, a specialist in infectious diseases attached to Kaiser’s emergency operations command center.
“There’s no perfect in this,” Duckro said. “So we’re learning as it moves along, and what to change, and we’re prepared to change on a minute’s notice.”
Kaiser is recommending patients first rely on virtual medical attention, using video, telephone and online chats with their doctor or healthcare provider to assess concerns before visiting a medical center. It’s also postponing elective and non-urgent procedures after physicians determine if that’s safe and allowable.
Despite hospital staffs working to deal with the ongoing and growing coronavirus pandemic, health care professionals say they are scrambling to determine the extent of the most basic needs for such a crisis, including how many respirators or ventilators each hospital has on hand, where to get one should it be needed, and how many intensive-care-unit beds are available.
“All hospitals and hospital systems are working together to ascertain how to meet the needs of the community,” said Sarah Ellis, a member of SCL Health’s COVID-19 incident management team, which counts Lutheran and Good Samaritan medical centers, as well as Saint Joseph Hospital, among its five hospitals.
Walk-in community clinics and those with emergency room facilities — there are about 45 licensed in the state — have nearly 300 licensed beds that could become critical in a pinch. Most are unoccupied.
Few hospitals would reveal to The Denver Post how many of the critical respiratory devices they have, referring questions to CHA, which admits it didn’t know and was compiling a list.
UCHealth, for instance, said it has more than 250 ICU beds and 250 negative-pressure isolation rooms to contain the virus across its 11 facilities — including UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs and University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, the two largest in the state — but wouldn’t offer the number of ventilators it has.
“This isn’t a number we captured before. We had a call with hospitals last week about how many ventilators the larger hospitals had, which was a fair number and that was encouraging,” Lonborg said. “Some had more ventilators than ICU beds, which is good because ICU beds is such a fluid number.”
Statewide, CDPHE is deciding whether it might need federal help in meeting the potential need for respirators.
More critical, Lonborg said, is for hospitals to know how many ICU beds are nearby, also a number that wasn’t tracked until now.
“We’ve already had a busy flu season, and we’re already taking care of those and so many others,” she said. “That’s why hospitals are suspending elective surgeries.”
Not all. Medical professionals from a handful of hospitals have said they were concerned elective procedures weren’t being canceled quickly enough — or at all. Officials at several hospitals said cancellations are on a case-by-case basis.
“Part of our response includes balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19 while continuing to make sure the many other patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care,” said Stephanie Sullivan, assistant vice president for media relations at HealthONE, whose seven hospitals in Colorado include St. Luke’s Medical Center, the state’s third-largest. “We believe decisions regarding scheduled procedures should be determined by a number of factors, including the urgency of the procedure, the clinical judgment of our physicians as well as the current circumstances in the facility and the community.”
David Migoya: email@example.com, 303-954-1506, or @davidmigoya.
Here are the top 10 largest hospitals in Colorado. Current licensed beds is the amount authorized by the state. The number of available beds is determined based on a hospital’s staffing levels. The percentage of occupied beds is the average at any one time of available beds that are in use during that fiscal year.
Hospital Licensed Beds Available beds % of Avail beds
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………in FY 2015* occupied 2015*
UCHealth Memorial Hospital/
UCHealth Memorial Hospital North Colo Springs 713 412 57%
University of Colorado Hospital Aurora 698 558 82%
Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Med Ctr Denver 680 348 64%
Denver Health Denver 555 342 77%
Children’s Hospital Colorado Aurora 444 400 73%
Rose Medical Center Denver 422 183 73%
Swedish Medical Center Englewood 408 324 80%
Saint Joseph Hospital Denver 400 356 68%
North Colorado Medical Center Greeley 378 255 48%
Porter Adventist Hospital Denver 368 188 52%
STATEWIDE 12,558 9,879 63%
* Most recent data available, fiscal year
Source: Colorado Hospital Association