“In mid-November, as the United States set records for newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases day after day, the hospital situation in one hard-hit state, Wisconsin, looked concerning but not yet urgent by one crucial measure. The main pandemic data tracking system run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), dubbed HHS Protect, reported that on 16 November, 71% of the state’s hospital beds were filled. Wisconsin officials who rely on the data to support and advise their increasingly strained hospitals might have concluded they had some margin left.
Yet a different federal COVID-19 data system painted a much more dire picture for the same day, reporting 91% of Wisconsin’s hospital beds were filled. That day was no outlier. A Science examination of HHS Protect and confidential federal documents found the HHS data for three important values in Wisconsin hospitals—beds filled, intensive care unit (ICU) beds filled, and inpatients with COVID-19—often diverge dramatically from those collected by the other federal source, from state-supplied data, and from the apparent reality on the ground.
“Our hospitals are struggling,” says Jeffrey Pothof, a physician and chief quality officer for the health system of the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison. During recent weeks, patients filled the system’s COVID-19 ward and ICU. The university’s main hospital converted other ICUs to treat the pandemic disease and may soon have to turn away patients referred to the hospital for specialized care. Inpatient beds—including those in ICUs—are nearly full across the state. “That’s the reality staring us down,” Pothof says, adding: The HHS Protect numbers “are not real.””