Why the Secrecy about Hospital Beds and COVID?

by Kerry Dougherty

Anyone remember why the country is locked down?

I do.

With images of Italy’s collapsing healthcare system and Italian death panels doling out beds and ventilators in early March, we were told we had to take radical steps so that American hospitals would not be similarly overwhelmed by the COVID-19 virus.

“Fifteen days to slow the spread,” they told us.

And we complied.

Fifteen days became 30, which then became 45 and in some places — like Virginia — the shutdowns have no end in sight.

As you sit at home, worrying about your mental health, your job, your finances and your family do you ever wonder just how many beds are occupied by COVID patients in the hospital nearest you?

Good luck finding out.

Neither the state nor the local hospitals will tell you. Never mind that the hospital industry took a whopping $100 billion in stimulus money from the public earlier this month. They seem to believe they’re under no obligation to reveal how many COVID patients are in any specific facility.

So imagine my delight when a local doctor sent me a copy of a “medical staff update” distributed last Thursday at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, the region’s Level 1 trauma center.

It contained a chart showing the number of COVID patients in the hospital that day.

There were nine in regular rooms. Two in ICU. None on ventilators.

This was heartening news. Absolutely splendid.

But when I phoned Sentara Health Systems yesterday to get numbers for other local hospitals I was told I wasn’t supposed to see the ones that I had from Norfolk. They definitely weren’t going to give me any more.

This, from the hospital spokesman:

Virtually all hospitals in Virginia share their patient data with the Virginia Department of Health and figures are reported regionally. The number of patients in a particular hospital can change by the hour as patients are admitted, discharged home or tested in the ED and sent home to self-isolate as presumptive positives. What we tell you at 10:00AM will be different by 2:00PM due to daily patient flow.


Of course the numbers would vary throughout the day. What’s wrong with saying something. Like “At noon on Monday, April 27 there were X number of COVID patients in Sentara Virginia Beach Hospital”?

I begged. I sent an email. I asked the spokesman to go up the food chain for permission to release the information.

No dice.

It was much the same story when Jim Bacon, from Bacon’s Rebellion, asked for bed counts from Bon Secours in Richmond yesterday. This was the reply he received:

“Consistent with our commitment to support all privacy laws, we are not able to discuss the protected medical information about any of our patients. All confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported to the Virginia Department of Health.”

That excuse is laughable.

Reporting the number of COVID patients in any given hospital on any given day doesn’t reveal “protected medical information.” Those are numbers, without names or details attached.

For some reason, hospitals are jealously guarding information about patient populations. And Virginia’s Department of Health is satisfied with vague, regional reporting.

Why all the secrecy surrounding COVID-19 and hospitalizations? Why don’t officials with the state or hospital groups want to let the public see a hospital-by-hospital, day-by-day breakdown of the beds occupied by COVID-19 patients?

Could it be they fear that the public might grow rebellious realizing they were on lockdown for a pandemic that had hospitalized only a handful of people in some localities?

Instead of specific up-to-the-minute local information, Virginia health officials shovel statewide figures at us that are bloated by ghastly nursing home outbreaks and a couple of hot spots in Northern Virginia.

As far as our little corner of Virginia, here is what you can glean from the state’s website:

Virginia Beach has had 72 hospitalizations since the beginning of the pandemic and 10 deaths.

Norfolk has had 36 hospitalizations and 3 deaths.

Chesapeake has had 214 cases, 45 hospitalizations and 6 deaths.

Portsmouth has had 114 cases, 32 hospitalizations and 5 deaths.

If my abacus is right, that means in an area with a population of more than 1 million, we have had 185 folks sick enough to be hospitalized and 24 deaths.

Very sad. But hardly hair-on-fire, close-it-all down time.

Someone should remind the commonwealth’s health honchos and the healthcare industry that members of the public have completely disrupted their lives, lost their jobs and watched their life savings evaporate to keep the hospitals from being overwhelmed.

The very least hospitals — and the state — owe us is complete transparency about the impact the epidemic is having on our local hospitals.