(CNN) — Fewer people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States now than at any other point in the pandemic, but hospitals and staff continue to feel the strain.
As of Friday, there are 16,138 people in the hospital with COVID-19 — fewer than there have ever been since the US Department of Health and Human Services first started tracking in July 2020. Just 2% of hospital beds are currently in use for COVID-19 patients.READ MORE: Maryland Weather: Cooling Down
Previously, the lowest point was in late June 2021, just before Delta became the dominant variant in the country. Covid-19 hospitalizations reached a peak in January 2022 amid the Omicron surge, when more than 160,000 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 at one time.
While the strain on the US hospital system directly related to treating COVID-19 patients has been significantly reduced, experts say that many hospitals are still burdened by staffing shortages and other patients who are coming in sicker after postponing care during the height of the pandemic.
“I can’t hear that (data on COVID-19 hospitalizations) without shouting ‘hallelujah’ because the stress and strain of the last two years has been so enormous,” Nancy Foster, vice president for quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association, told CNN. “But there are a number of things going on now that continue to make hospitals and their staff very busy.”
She says hospitals expected an influx of patients who had delayed care, either by choice or because the hospital system couldn’t accommodate them.
“But I think it is that combination of having more people needing care than we had anticipated and having more staffing issues than we had anticipated that is really the biggest challenge right now,” she said.
The broader snapshot of hospital capacity offers a stark contrast to the CDC’s “COVID-19 Community Levels” map, which tracks new hospital admissions and beds in use specifically for COVID-19 patients.
The CDC map is nearly all green, with 95% of US counties considered to have a “low” community level of COVID-19.READ MORE: Maryland Weather: A Cold Front Sweeps In As Severe Thunderstorm Watch Ends
But HHS data shows that more than three-quarters of inpatient beds are currently in use in hospitals across the country, and there are nine states where more than 80% of all beds in the state are occupied.
Experts say it’s important to monitor both broader hospital capacity and the burden specifically from COVID-19.
“From an endemic COVID monitoring perspective — at least that’s where we hope we’re heading — we need to be able to tell whether we’re in a state that requires public health measures,” Dr. Stephen Parodi, national infectious disease leader for Kaiser Permanente, told CNN.
But the pandemic has dramatically shifted the way hospitals operate. Pre-pandemic, there was typically seasonal variation in how many beds were filled, with more patients expected during flu season in the winter and a lighter volume over the summer.
“What’s different now, since the pandemic, is essentially we’re running full all the time,” Parodi said. “That calculation of a plan — when it comes to staffing those beds, having the workforce available, the doctors, nurses, the support services like laboratory and radiology — it’s changing our thinking about what we need to plan for an entire year as opposed to just one particular season.”
Parodi and others expect the continued strain on capacity to persist at least through the end of the year.
Overall since August 2020, there have been about 4.6 million total hospital admissions for COVID-19 in the US, according to data from the CDC. More than a third of hospital admissions have been among seniors age 70 and older.
Black and Hispanic people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of White people, and American Indians have been more than three times as likely to be hospitalized.MORE NEWS: Waterfront Partnership Of Baltimore Offers Free Exercise Classes Along Inner Harbor
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