Long Beach Medical Center. Courtesy photo.

Hospitalizations are a crucial data point that health officials are using to track the spread of the coronavirus: They help officials measure how impacted local hospitals are at a given moment.

But in Long Beach, you might be left wondering how reliable that number is. Each day, Long Beach has been reporting a hospitalization number on its public data dashboard. Frequently, however, that number turns out to be incorrect.

For instance, on July 1, Long Beach city officials reported 78 hospitalizations. But, soon after, hospitalizations for July 1 were revised up. Nine days after the fact, the city’s COVID-19 dashboard showed updated hospitalizations at 106 people for July 1. Then two days later, it showed 112 hospitalizations. Now it shows 115.

That’s a big jump from 78—a difference of 37 people. Why is this happening? Part of it is because the number they’re reporting probably isn’t what you think it is.

Counterintuitively, the data point that health officials show on Long Beach’s COVID-19 dashboard is the number of Long Beach residents who are hospitalized on a specific date—not the number of people hospitalized in or around Long Beach. A Long Beach resident hospitalized in Michigan would still count toward July 1st’s total of 115 hospitalizations even though that person has no impact on the local hospital system.

The lag in time it takes for the health department to learn of a resident who has been hospitalized in another jurisdiction, getting the admission and discharge dates and other details is what contributes to the large revisions, Communicable Disease Control Program Supervisor Emily Holman said. These residents could be in a hospital in a neighboring city, like Lakewood, or in another county or occasionally even another state, she said.

“(This) hospitalization data is less about impact to our hospitals and more about the severity of the disease and impact to our residents,” Holman said in an email. “If hospitals just provided a number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19, we would have no way of knowing how many were Long Beach residents, how severe they were, etc.”

There are really two different hospitalization numbers health departments track, according to Dr. Roger Lewis, the director of the county’s COVID-19 hospital demand modeling team: the number of beds that are filled in hospitals in a jurisdiction and the number of residents hospitalized from a specific jurisdiction.

“There’s one question about how the community is being affected and there’s a separate question about how the hospitals in the community are being affected and those are not completely the same thing,” Lewis said.

Even though it’s not easily accessible to the public, Long Beach officials are tracking the impact to the nearby health system by watching the local bed count, which is reported by individual hospitals to the state via electronic reporting systems, health director Kelly Colopy said. In this system, area hospitals Long Beach Memorial Hospital, St. Mary Medical Center, Lakewood Regional Medical Center and Los Alamitos Medical Center are included as part of the count. As of Wednesday, the health department counted 140 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in these facilities combined, whereas the number of Long Beach residents was at 99, she said.

But no matter which way the numbers are being counted, they’re all still going up, which is of concern to medical professionals across the city, county and state.

“We believe the projections speak for themselves,” Lewis said. “And this pattern has been explained both by Dr. Ghaly and Dr. Ferrer that across LA County we’re seeing an increased number of cases, an increased number of people requiring hospitalization and increased number of people in the Intensive Care Unit and an increased number of patients on ventilators.”

Valerie Osier is the Social Media & Newsletter Manager for the Long Beach Post. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @ValerieOsier