The Lack of Hospital Beds Is a National Crisis

America is experiencing a massive shortfall in hospital beds, harmful to both COVID and non-COVID patients needing care. But the pandemic didn’t create the hospital bed crisis — it exacerbated an existing one that our government refuses to address.

A medical worker treats a non-COVID patient in the ICU ward at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, 2022. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images)

The nurse apologized profusely. On a phone call earlier this month, she’d told me that my mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The next step: transferring her to a hospice to die.

But it turns out that the nurse had read me the notes from the patient in the hospital room next door to my mom.

“I’m sorry for the mixup. I’m frankly exhausted,” she told me over the phone an hour later.

I took a deep breath and eventually calmed down enough to accept her apology — knowing full well that health care workers are overworked and frazzled and make mistakes. But then I got furious all over again the next day.

That’s when the doctor ordered my mother to go home, because new COVID patients were quickly filling up the facility. Despite her infection and respiratory problems, she was considered a lower risk patient and thus had to go. Three days later, my brother called an ambulance to take her back to a different ER because her health had declined. How long she’ll remain in the hospital this time may partially depend on the whims of Omicron.

Blame the unmasked and the unvaccinated for their negligence in mitigating the worst effects of the pandemic — that’s what many liberal politicians and mainstream media say my family should do. But COVID-19 didn’t invent the hospital bed crisis. It merely exacerbated an existing one that our government doesn’t have the courage to address.

The numbers are stark. In 1975, America had 7,156 hospitals — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and 1.4 million beds available. In the four and a half decades since then, that number has nosedived to 6,090 hospitals and 919,000 beds as of 2021 due to corporate consolidation and the closure of many rural hospitals.

That adds up to about 2.9 hospital beds per thousand Americans, which ties it with Turkey, according to the World Bank, but is lower than Turkmenistan. Japan has more than four times as many beds, with thirteen per thousand citizens.

It’s no wonder that in states hard-hit by Omicron, hospitals are overwhelmed and patients are sometimes stuffed into hallways and wait days to get a bed. In Arizona, for instance, hospitals are over 100 percent full. My mom was strapped into a gurney in a holding area for fourteen hours before getting a room and treatment. When sent to a rehab facility, it was located over an hour away in a tiny farming community, because everything else was booked.

My mom is surely a victim of the COVID-19 epidemic that has harmed those who have unrelated medical emergencies. But she’s also a victim of the profit-driven American health system, one obsessed with cutting the costs of excess capacity of unused hospitals and beds.

The pandemic should have been a clarion call for a Medicare for All national health care system, the kind that Bernie Sanders has been crowing about for years, and hospital expansion program. At the very least, the federal government should prioritize stockpiling or subsidizing new medical facilities or intensive care units in case state or federal officials declare a public health emergency — or to treat victims of natural disasters or acts of terrorism.

In 2004, after the SARS scare, the CDC argued that this was one of the main ways to prepare for the next national health emergency. “Surge capacity hospital space for public health emergencies needs to be developed for every area of the country,” said the study.

But the only surge of resources this country can seemingly muster quickly is one involving the military. Watch how quickly our government can act when it comes to, say, a diplomatic crisis in the Ukraine compared to our ever-present health crisis.

In the end, the American Rescue Plan didn’t rescue our broken health care system. It just put a Band-Aid on it and told us to go home.