Discussion Paper

Unequal Burdens: Racial Differences in ICU Stress during the Third Wave of COVID-19


Abstract: A critical risk during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the possibility of the hospital system becoming overwhelmed. COVID-19 not only has killed nearly 2 percent of people with confirmed infections but causes many more who contract it to develop severe complications that are potentially fatal if not treated in an intensive care unit (ICU). As ICU capacity is based on typical needs for intensive care before the pandemic, a surge of COVID-related ICU patients may leave no room for individuals requiring intensive care for other reasons—such as heart attacks—or may exceed the total ICU capacity to treat even COVID-19 patients. In this post, we investigate the extent to which members of different racial and ethnic groups faced different levels of hospital system stress during the “third wave” of COVID-19 in the winter of 2021, which, as the largest wave to hit the United States, briefly brought intensive care units around the country to the point of being overwhelmed. We find that while Black and Hispanic individuals faced the greatest exposure to overburdened ICUs over the course of the third wave from beginning to end, Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) went from experiencing more stable ICU capacities than the national average at the beginning of the wave to a nearly overwhelmed ICU system at its peak.

Keywords: COVID-19; race; ICU; hospital;

JEL Classification: J15; I14;

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Bibliographic Information

Provider: Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Part of Series: Liberty Street Economics

Publication Date: 2021-08-09

Number: 20210809