Analysis: York-area hospitals don't have nearly enough beds to handle coronavirus

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

York-area hospitals are unprepared to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients, even under the best-case scenario, according to a Harvard University analysis published last week.

Those estimates came even before Pennsylvania cases began to spike, totaling 1,687 with 16 deaths as of Thursday at noon.

Researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute have estimated that if Americans act quickly to mitigate the spread, the infection rate among adults could remain around 20%, reported ProPublica.

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Under that model, hospitals in the York region would need to nearly double the number of beds to handle patients if that infection rate was spread over the next six months.

About 20% percent of adults infected with the coronavirus require hospitalization, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 5% end up in intensive care. 

Under the worst-case scenario — where 60% of adults contract the illness — the Harvard model predicts local hospitals would need to quadruple their bed count if the infection took place over a six-month period.

Hospitals would still be under-equipped if that level of infection took place over the next 12 to 18 months, according to the model.

Pennsylvania had 560 additional cases of COVID-19 and five new virus-related deaths as of noon Thursday, bringing the total cases to 1,687. It was a roughly 50% increase from the day before, the state Department of Health reported.

York County saw one additional case but is yet to report a death. There have been 21 confirmed cases in York County. 

Severe spikes in coronavirus cases nationwide have caused concern that hospitals won't have enough beds and resources to handle patients, particularly in New York City, which has become the outbreak's epicenter in the U.S.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said Thursday that based on his briefings with health officials, hospitals have backup plans to provide more beds and space for a surge in COVID-19 patients.

It’s more likely that hospitals will have a shortage of equipment, supplies and health care workers during a patient surge, he said.

That scenario would become more likely if York County’s cases continue to double every two to three days, he said.

“To my knowledge we are still in pretty good shape, but you know, if you call me in an hour and a half I might have a different answer for you,” Helfrich said.

Representatives from WellSpan and UPMC hospitals, which serve York County, did not immediately respond Thursday to calls seeking comment.

But hospital officials have said that they began preparing in January for an outbreak after talks with state health officials. 

Last week, UPMC President Philip Guarneschelli also said that if hospitals were overwhelmed, they could expand capacity by converting areas such as post-operative recovery rooms into intensive care units.

Hospitals are expected to get some relief after the U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved a $2 trillion stimulus package meant to boost the tanking economy and aid those on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Among a vast number of provisions in the legislation that the House was expected to approve Friday, it would appropriate $100 billion for hospitals, The New York Times reported.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf was also expected to sign legislation Friday that would boost funding for health care facilities by $50 million.

“We need more beds, more ventilators, more personal protective equipment, and so much more, and we need it as soon as possible because the virus is here,” Wolf said.

Meanwhile, schools across the state are slated to be closed until early April, and an increasing number of counties hardest-hit by COVID-19 are on “stay-at-home” orders issued by Wolf over the past week.

Those counties are Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Erie, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton and Philadelphia.

The Pennsylvania State Police and York City officials also continue to enforce Wolf’s order to close all "non-life-sustaining" businesses, which he issued last week.

COVID-19 coronavirus testing is available outside of WellSpan Family Medicine - Cape Horn in Windsor Township, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Candidates must be directed to the facility for testing by a physician prior to arrival. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The move prompted a spike in unemployment claims, a nationwide trend exemplifying widespread economic fallout as states attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The state Department of Labor and Industry has received 650,000 unemployment claims since March 15 alone, according to officials.

As of Thursday, there had been 491,600 known cases of the coronavirus worldwide, killing more than 22,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University. More than 69,000 cases had been confirmed in the U.S., with the death toll exceeding 1,000.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.