9 new coronavirus maps predict how fast hospitals will hit capacity

A CDC map identifies which communities are at highest risk for COVID-19 infections.

Now that there are coronavirus cases around the world, the next challenge is figuring out what cities will be hit the hardest and which places will need the more hospital beds and healthcare workers. Government officials and healthcare experts are using complex maps built with geographic information systems to guide these decisions.

Dr. Este Geraghty, chief medical officer and health solutions director at Esri, explained why maps are so helpful for doctors and scientists trying to understand and manage disease outbreaks:

  • Dashboards pull together data to convey a real-time, map-based understanding of spreading disease
  • Authorities from global to local use dashboards and maps to display data at different scales.
  • The improved pace of data sharing helps speed awareness and preparedness.

"When disease can travel so quickly, information has to move even faster," she wrote in a blog post about smart maps and coronavirus investigations and actions.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

The maps are built with geographic information system (GIS) software that gathers, manages, and analyzes many types of data and organizes it into visualizations. 

Three new coronavirus maps display multiple layers of data, including deaths from COVID-19, confirmed cases, hospital beds, demographic data, and hospital capacity. These maps can help individuals understand how the coronavirus may impact individual communities.

Hospital bed capacity across the US

Shortages of hospital beds are a potential issue in the coronavirus outbreak, even if people with mild symptoms quarantine themselves at home. Most hospitals regularly report their patient capacity to government officials. GIS tools help them monitor capacity and compare it against increasing infection rates. This allows real-time allocation of resources to boost capacity where coronavirus response is needed most.

The Definitive Healthcare: US Hospital Beds Dashboard is built with ArcGIS software and shows how many hospital beds are full at a given time. The map has multiple layers, including:

  • Licensed beds
  • Staffed beds
  • ICU beds
  • Utilization rate
  • Potential change in hospital beds

Epidemiologists can use GIS modeling to predict and visualize the changing rates of illness and its spread across space and time. Both models and real-time tracking can guide decisions on when and where to shut down schools and businesses.  

SEE: Big data management tips (free PDF)

Nine transmission scenarios and hospital capacity

ProPublica built a series of maps that combines hospital beds with estimated cases of coronavirus infections. The data from the maps comes from the Harvard Global Health Institute, the count of hospital beds nationwide, and estimates of coronavirus cases. The maps illustrate a variety of scenarios that consider the percentage of adults infected and how fast the virus spreads. The maps consider three time frames:

  • 6 months
  • 12 months
  • 18 months

And three rates of infection:

  • 20% of adults in America
  • 40%
  • 60%

Based on the maps, if 60% of American adults develop the coronavirus illness over six months, hospitals nationwide will be at 200% capacity--that map is deep red from coast to coast. If 60% of the adults in America catch the virus over 18 months, some regions will be at 100% capacity while areas along the coasts and in the southwest will be at 200% capacity.

If social distancing and nationwide closures work, the pandemic could last longer but be less severe. That means fewer people will need a hospital bed at the same time. If there is a sudden and dramatic spike in cases, the healthcare system will be overwhelmed much more quickly. 

The map also allows users to see how fast hospitals in a particular city would reach capacity. For Louisville, KY, if only 20% of adults contract the virus over the next six months, hospital beds would be at 150% of capacity. In every scenario but one, hospitals would be at well over 100% capacity. 

Communities where people are most at risk

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention built a map to identify where the people most vulnerable to the illness live. Adults older than 65 are at the highest risk for contracting coronavirus. The map combines population figures with the CDC's Social Vulnerability Index to predict which communities might need more hospital beds and healthcare workers.

John Nelson at the CDC built the multi-layered map with ArcGIS software to show the intersection of age and social vulnerability. Scrolling down through the map page changes the display on the map to show which communities have a concentration of older adults and a high score on the vulnerability index. The index helps emergency response planners and public health officials identify and map the communities that will most likely need support before, during, and after a natural disaster or other significant event. The index measures 15 social factors including poverty, lack of vehicle access, and crowded housing conditions.

Sixteen states have counties with a large population of people at high risk of Covid-19 infection and a weak socio-economic infrastructure. Nelson identified four counties in the United States with more than a third of their population ages 60 and older, a very high Vulnerability Index of .75 or more, and a population of at least 100,000:

  • Highlands County, FL
  • Marion County, FL
  • Mohave County, AZ
  • Douglas County, OR

The communities could require both more healthcare workers and restrictions on community activities to protect these vulnerable populations.

Esri's Geraghty said that she can imagine maps being used In the future to direct people to hospitals with available beds, clinics offering medical aid along with the current wait times, grocery stores and pharmacies that are open, places to purchase personal protective equipment, and so on. 

"In heavily impacted cities, this kind of information could critically improve outcomes and save lives," she wrote.

Location information also can also help responders understand how interventions work. Officials can use GIS maps to see whether certain actions have changed the virus's spread among specific populations or in certain locations.

ArcGIS has a coronavirus response kit for local governments that includes maps and apps that can be used by Public Health agencies to understand the impact of the coronavirus and to share information with residents.  

Also see

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ProPublica used data from the Harvard Global Health Institute, hospital bed capacity and estimates about the spread of the coronavirus and how quickly hospitals will hit capacity.

Image: ProPublica