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'We were getting panicked calls': After 100% capacity debacle, Houston hospitals make reporting changes

One of the new graphics shows ICU bed capacity and occupancy in three phases, with room to expand at each phase.

HOUSTON — Local COVID-19 numbers are trending in the wrong direction. Daily cases, hospitalizations, and the positivity rate are all up. In the midst of that troubling news, Houston made national headlines when the Texas Medical Center’s online dashboard showed intensive care units at 100% capacity.

“We were getting panicked calls from elected officials and members of the media saying, ‘You all are out of ICU beds, what are we going to do?’ No, that’s not right. We were not doing a very good job with our slides and portraying how we manage our capacity,” said Dr. David Callender, President & CEO, Memorial Hermann Hospital. “We want to be very clear. We’re not close to running out of capacity.”

Over the weekend, the heads of Houston’s top hospitals came together to reformat how they present information. The hospitals stopped reporting new COVID-19 information for a couple of days while new infographics were created.

“We actually have all the slides that we had in the original deck now, and we’ve added four or five slides as our new baseline,” said Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center. “We want to make sure we continue to educate properly. We don’t scare people, but we are also completely transparent with our data.”

One of the new graphics shows ICU bed capacity and occupancy in three phases, with room to expand at each phase. Callendar said the new chart shows capacity is not fixed, but flexible. However, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is concerned the new format is even more confusing.

“The timing is suspect. I find it very, very problematic. I said I’m not on board. We do not need to be misleading people,” Hidalgo said. “This message ultimately weakens our community’s ability to succeed when the message is being diluted, when the numbers, projections, and definitions are being changed halfway through the game, halfway through the battle.”

McKeon regrets the lag in information over the weekend, but he says the new dashboard paints a more complete picture of how COVID-19 is impacting the community. He says the positivity rate in the Greater Houston area is his biggest concern heading into the Fourth of July weekend.

“We’re four times what we were in May and April, so we’re very concerned. We don’t want this discussion about capacity to lose sight of this virus being highly active in our community,” said McKeon.

He urges people to practice social distancing by wearing masks, using good hygiene and staying home as much as possible.

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