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SC hospitals say DHEC data underestimates occupancy rate

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The patient registration entrance at Regional Medical Center on Friday, July 24, 2020, in Orangeburg. Hospitals across the country are being asked to report the number of hospital beds they have available differently than before, without breaking them down by type. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The Tidelands Health hospitals in South Carolina's Grand Strand are 99 percent full. But looking at the state government's data, you wouldn't know it. 

In fact, information shared through the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control shows hospital beds are just 69 percent full in Georgetown County, where Tidelands Health is the only hospital operator. 

The discrepancy is due to new reporting requirements that took hold when President Donald Trump's administration ordered a shift in control of the tracking within federal government agencies. Hospitals across the country are being asked to report the number of hospital beds they have available differently than before, without breaking them down by type.

In South Carolina, that means the hospital occupancy information being reported through DHEC makes it look like hospitals are in a better situation than they actually are.

"It's not what you see on the reports," said Melanie Matney, chief operating officer of the S.C. Hospital Association. "That's what we've got to really tease down, not only the bed types but what truly is available for the patient."

Matney said hospitals had no notice the requirements were about to change, and have experienced a learning curve with TeleTracking, the new system. 

For example, the total number of beds hospitals are reporting now includes bassinets intended for sick infants, Matney said. Naturally, a bassinet could not be used for an adult COVID-19 patient. 

Charles Williams, CEO of The Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, attributed the confusion over hospital capacity data to some facilities counting beds that they can’t use to treat COVID-19 patients. Some occupancy counts also include empty hospital beds that facilities can’t use because of staffing shortages, Williams said. That’s becoming more of a problem as nurses are knocked out of work by exposure to the pandemic and demand for contract workers intensifies, he said.

RMC reports only beds that can be used by COVID-19 patients and can be staffed, Williams told reporters at a press conference Monday.

“A bed is not a bed is not a bed,” he said.

The hospital was in the news recently after erecting a tent facility in its parking lot that can treat up to a dozen COVID-19 patients at a time.

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DHEC and the South Carolina Hospital Association "both believe this new reporting system isn't currently providing the metrics we need in order to accurately assess the capabilities and needs of our state's hospitals during COVID-19," a DHEC spokeswoman said in a statement. DHEC and the hospital association are meeting with hospital leaders early next week to come up with a better way to report hospital bed census, she added.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state fell from 1,596 on Wednesday to 1,516 on Friday, according to DHEC. In Charleston, 68 COVID-19 patients are being cared for at Roper St. Francis' four hospitals — down from 131 patients two weeks ago.

After pausing elective surgeries July 14, Roper St. Francis told its employees they would be able to restart the procedures beginning Aug. 5.

Still, hospitals, particularly in South Carolina's Grand Strand region, remain under stress, Matney said. 

Bruce Bailey, CEO of Tidelands Health, said during a press conference Friday there are a couple of reasons the occupancy numbers look better than what his and other health systems are feeling, including the fact that hospitals have added surge capacity. 

"I'm not sure we will ever not have those discrepancies," Bailey said.

He reinforced that people need to listen to social distancing and mask-wearing recommendations in order to bring down Tidelands' and other health systems' occupancy rates. 

Matney said the hospital association is working with DHEC and TeleTracking to clarify and improve upon the reporting tools so the public gets a clearer view of the reality inside South Carolina's hospitals. 

"We're scheduling some education with the hospitals to go through what should actually be on the report so that we truly get an accurate picture of what's happening," she said. 

Even the prior reporting system run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not provide a clear view into hospitals' capacity, she added. 

Mark Sims, CEO of Grand Strand Health, said the number of patients in hospitals in the Pee Dee has come down in the last week or so. The number of new COVID-19 cases is no longer growing at the rate it was in late June to mid-July. But the pandemic still poses a threat, Sims said.

"COVID is still a significant risk for us," he said.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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