Houston Hospitals Deleted and Changed Charts That Track ICU Capacity

In the middle of a long peak in coronavirus cases in Houston—with a record-breaking 2,017 suspected COVID-19-related hospitalizations in Harris County as of Monday—the Texas Medical Center deleted charts tracking ICU capacity from its website for three days, only to bring them back with a friendlier look and lighter on the info residents need to understand what the state of the medical response is to coronavirus.

The charts were removed just as the TMC, which is the largest medical complex in the world, reported on Thursday that it reached 100 percent of its ICU capacity and warned it would exceed “unsustainable surge” levels by July 6. Over the weekend, Houstonians swarmed urgent cares and drive-throughs for testing, and more than one-fifth of them returned positive. By Sunday, the TMC uploaded new charts painting a much less alarming picture of the pandemic in Houston.

Houston is far from the first city to obscure data on coronavirus cases in a way that downplays the severity of an outbreak. (The greater Houston area is also familiar with the political tool of hiding unfavorable statistics: A former Houston radio DJ once told Texas Monthly that a detective told him the city stopped looking for the bodies of boys killed by 1970s serial killer Dean Corll when the count surpassed the national mass murder record.) The entire country has failed so spectacularly in tracing and tracking confirmed cases that it’s pointless to compare stats in the United States to other countries, because so many decisions about how much information to give Americans, and in what format, is left up to the personal taste of politicians and health care administrators.

In New York City, the once-epicenter of the pandemic, a general lack of testing (even worse in prisons and nursing homes) left innumerable cases out of the total. It was clear as early as March 3 that Washington state wasn’t testing nearly enough people and some unknown number of residents in Seattle were likely infected with COVID-19 as a result. Within Texas, discrepancies in case tracking can come down to a county judge’s personal preference on including prison numbers, which aren’t properly reported anyway.

Zach Despart and Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle were the first to report the TMC quietly deleted and changed its public-facing data. The old charts were shades of orange and red—the classic warning colors—and showed ICU capacity as a circle-shaped meter with an obvious danger zone. The new charts are colored in calming shades of blue, and somehow manage to shift the unsustainable surge point out to at least mid-July, though exact dates are seemingly removed.

The updated charts are also divided up into anodyne “phases,” as if it were routine and normal to be overflowing with fatally sick people. “Phase 3” is functionally the same as unsustainable surge levels, but much easier a concept to swallow than, “there are more patients here than can be reasonably treated.”

A TMC hospital CEO tried to explain the sudden shift in the projected date that the world’s largest medical system would exceed its capacity to properly treat people by pointing to Governor Greg Abbott’s recent ban on elective surgeries. How true that is, and how much the TMC is simply trying to convey fortitude it does not have, are answers the public decidedly does not get to have, so long as the people in charge of the data can mess around with it willy nilly, and at the worst possible time. The testimonies from Houston physicians who work inside the TMC paint a vivid picture of what’s actually happening in ICUs around the city, just as testimonies from New York City hospital workers did throughout March, April, and May: There is not enough space or energy to treat the number of people who need it.

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