ICU Headroom Used: Explained

ICU Headroom Used measures an Intensive Care Unit’s (ICU) ability to handle a surge of patients in the case of an outbreak. Metrics like daily new cases and R(t) inform the potential impact on the ICU headroom. You might see similar metrics called “Hospital Capacity.” At Covid Act Now, we chose to measure Hospital ICU capacity because ICUs treat the sickest patients with equipment, like ventilators, that can save the lives of the sickest patients. 

The White House’s reopening plan, AEI’s plan, and Harvard University’s Safra Center for Ethic’s plan all note ICU headroom used as a key metric for reopening safely. 

Here’s a video that helps explain ICU headroom used:

How Does Covid Act Now rate this metric?

10 beds shown. 5 occupied by non-COVID patients. 5 remaining is "Headroom". 3 of those 5 = 60% which qualifies as a high risk.

The top row represents the ICU headroom available for COVID patients. If three out of five beds (or 60%) of headroom for COVID patients are in use, risk is considered high (orange).

ICU capacity can change suddenly,  depending on infection rate, daily new cases, test positivity, and reporting delays. We need enough ICU beds to treat patients until COVID spikes are found and controlled. We measure the percentage of ICU headroom that is available to treat COVID patients. 

We chose our cutoffs based on Resolve to Save Live’s policy recommendation, which says COVID cases in the ICU occupancy should be able to double for states to think about opening.

The graph below shows a spike in Georgia’s ICU headroom used in the last two weeks of July. See how quickly the percent of beds used went from 71% on July 19 to 93% Aug 3? If actions have not already been taken to lower infection rate and daily new cases, the ICU will reach full capacity and will likely have to resort to crisis standards of care.

Georgia’s ICU headroom dramatically increased over the last two weeks of July. Bed use increased from 70% on July 19 to 95% Aug 3

Where does our data come from for this metric?

To calculate ICU headroom used, we use data from CovidCareMap.

ICU headroom used is just one of several important metrics to determine how well your state or county is doing in the fight against COVID. Learn more about daily new cases, test positivity, infection rate, and contact tracing. For a more technical, “kitchen sink,” description of assumptions and methodology, please see our references and assumptions document, along with our data sources presentation.

Check out our Youtube Channel for our educational videos.

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