Lacking Beds, Hospitals Ship COVID-19 Patients to Other States

Carolyn Crist

August 19, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Hospitals in several states are full of COVID-19 patients and no longer have beds available, so they're sending patients to other states for treatment — sometimes hundreds of miles away on ambulances, helicopters and planes, according to The Associated Press.

Large hospitals in urban areas were already running short on space and staff before the most recent surge in patients due to the contagious Delta variant. Now small rural hospitals and medical centers in coronavirus hotspots also need help, which has created a complicated scramble to find hospital beds for patients wherever possible.

CoxHealth, for instance, has a hospital in Springfield, Missouri, that is treating patients from as far away as Alabama.

"Just imagine not having the support of your family near, to have that kind of anxiety if you have someone grow acutely ill," Steve Edwards, CEO of CoxHealth, told the AP.

More than 85,000 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized across the U.S., according to the latest data from The New York Times. Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oregon hit record-high levels for COVID-19 hospitalizations during the past week, and Alabama ran out of intensive care unit beds on Wednesday, the newspaper reported.

In Arizona, a special COVID-19 hotline is receiving frantic phone calls from hospitals in Arkansas, California, Texas and Wyoming that need to find beds for patients, the AP reported. Many times, there's no place to send people.

"We just can't get them out," Dennis Shelby, CEO of the Wilson Medical Center in Kansas, told the AP.

Officials at the 15-bed hospital called 40 other medical centers in several states to find a bed for a COVID-19 patient. They finally found one about 220 miles away. Across Kansas, sick COVID-19 patients in small rural hospitals are waiting about 10 hours to be flown elsewhere, the AP reported, including to Colorado, Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin.

The delays can have deadly consequences for patients, especially for those who need specialists or have urgent health concerns such as heart attacks or strokes.

"Imagine being with your grandma in the ER who is having a heart attack in western Kansas and you are saying, ‘Why can't we find a bed for her?'" Richard Watson, founder of Motient, a company that is helping hospitals in Kansas to manage patient transfers, told the AP.

"We are watching this happen right in front of us," he said.

Even if hospitals have beds, they may lack the staff to care for more patients, the AP reported. Many locations are facing staffing shortages since health care professionals experienced burnout during earlier surges of the pandemic.

Looking ahead toward the fall, health care workers are concerned about what could come next as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise due to the Delta variant. In Iowa, for instance, doctors are worried about the aftermath of the Iowa State Fair, which extends through this weekend and is expected to draw 1 million people.

"How are we going to be able to handle that?" Clint Hawthorne, an emergency medicine specialist in Des Moines, told the AP.

"There's not a good answer to that," he said.


The Associated Press: "With no beds, hospitals ship patients to far-off cities."

The New York Times: "Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count."


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