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DENVER (KDVR) — More ICU beds does not mean more ICU patients. The scary-sounding statistic is as much a feature of hospital staffing levels as patient load. There are 13% fewer available ICU beds now than a month ago according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data, largely because staff are peeled away from the ICU for one reason or another.

“As hospitalization numbers continue to grow, and as we expand the number of beds available for patients, the pressure on staffing increases,” explained UCHealth representative Jessica Berry.

According to state data, 31% of hospitals are expecting staff shortages within a week.

Berry clarified that UCHealth has enough staff for all its patients. However, Colorado’s largest hospital system is starting to dip into the back-up roster needed for surge capacity.

“As needed, we have plans in place to redeploy nursing staff from our outpatient clinics, surgical and procedural departments, or other areas to care for hospitalized patients,” Berry said. “Some of our hospitals are already utilizing these additional staff members.”

The more hospital staffing gets stressed, the more critical care availability gets stressed.

The number of ICU beds in the state has tumbled since early November. On Nov. 5, hospitals reported 1,938 ICU beds. By Nov. 30, that number had fallen to 1,718 – a 13% decrease.

“Most of that fluctuation does relate to staffing availability,” said Dr. Glen Mays, chair of the Department of Health Systems, Management and Policy at the Colorado School of Public Health. “We’re seeing more hospitals reporting staffing constraints, probably due to a combination of factors.”

COVID-19 staff outbreaks, general overload and holiday scheduling all coincide. Patients don’t always require intensive care. As more and more patients enter the hospital system, more and more healthcare staff are shifted to where the influx of patients is.

“That’s definitely part of how hospitals maintain surge capacity,” Dr. Mays said. “It’s much easier to move from ICU to non-ICU because of the specialized staffing necessary for ICU beds.”

Since October’s skyrocketing caseloads and the accompanying hospitalizations, the state’s ICU bed availability has been erratic.

For most of the summer, the state’s total ICU beds hovered around 1,830 available. Since mid-September, they have jumped around from a mid-October high of almost 2,000 available beds to only 1,600 late November.

These jumps in bed availability impact the overall usage rate. The amount of current ICU patients would roughly equal the summer use rate if the hospital system had the same amount of available staff.

“We’re at a critical time,” said Dr. Mays. “This month is when we’ll see more and more places bump up against their capacity.”