The federal government has released detailed local data on where hospitals are starting to fill up with patients. Researchers and health leaders say this was urgently needed.



The Department of Health and Human Services has released data about individual hospitals that shows in detail how badly COVID-19 is stressing them. NPR's Pien Huang has been going through all that data. Good morning, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: I should start by saying that this was a big data drop. You went through it all - went through a lot of it. And what did you learn?

HUANG: Yeah. Absolutely. It's a huge data set. And what it really spotlights is the areas of the country where hospitals are getting dangerously full. It includes reporting on the number of COVID patients, the number of ICU beds they're taking up from individual hospitals. And it covers 2,200 counties across the U.S. In 126 of those counties, the average hospital is at least 90% occupied. Now, some hospitals try to operate at a pretty high capacity in normal times. But in a pandemic, with more and more patients needing hospital care, that's when things get a little scary.

And my NPR co-reporter, Sean McMinn, and I found that the states with the most counties above that 90% thresholds include Kentucky, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma. And it's impacting both big hospitals and small ones. In Texas, for example, there's a hospital with 250 beds and one with 31 beds. And both of them were above that 90% capacity in the past week.

KING: This seems like important information for people. I certainly would like to know how full my neighborhood hospital is. Why are we only getting the data now?

HUANG: That's a good question. I mean, HHS has been collecting this data from every hospital since mid-July. And they've been sharing it internally, but not publicly. So the public so far has only been seeing state-level data. And researchers have been criticizing them for this, saying it's super important to know what's going on at a local level.

HHS says they've decided to release the nationwide data now because COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased so much in the past two months. And they say they now think that the people who are responding to the crisis need this information and that the general public does, too. So now, with this release, anyone with a computer and Internet access can go to and see the situation at their local hospitals and other ones around the country.

KING: That is fascinating. That sounds like a win for people who are interested in transparency or just in knowing what's going on.

HUANG: Yeah. Absolutely. This is something that public health experts have been pushing for, to see more of that data publicly. And they say this is something to celebrate. Here's Ryan Panchadsaram. He co-founded the website COVID Exit Strategy.

RYAN PANCHADSARAM: Our hospitals are under so much stress. And so when we're thinking about how serious we should be taking this crisis, this open data release is helping provide the data that's needed to help people make the right decisions.

HUANG: These are decisions like whether local officials need to impose things like mask mandates or stay-at-home orders for their areas to avoid overwhelming hospitals. And for individual people, it might help them decide to cancel holiday gatherings or get them to stay home if they're not feeling well. And this hospital data is really important. And it's been the missing piece of public data for a lot of the pandemic. Researchers often talk about the trinity of case data, hospitalizations and deaths. And these are the three numbers that give a clear sense of what the situation looks like in a given area.

KING: OK. So how often will the data be updated?

HUANG: Well, they expect to post a new data set every Monday. So you can keep track of how your local hospital is doing every week. And I also wanted to say that HHS did stress that they do not want this to discourage people from going to the hospital if they need to. They say that if you're sick, you should still absolutely seek care.

KING: NPR's Pien Huang. Thank you so much for this.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.