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The coronavirus outbreak promises to hit the New England health care system hard — and, even with effective social distancing, we may not be ready for it.

Data provided by the Harvard Global Health Institute show that — depending on the number of residents who end up contracting the virus — hospitals could be overwhelmed by patients suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and other ailments.

For instance, in what researchers call a “moderate” scenario, if 40 percent of adults get infected over a year, the Boston hospital region would need to increase capacity by 84 percent.


“Hospitals can increase capacity by canceling elective procedures and moving urgent care visits to telemedicine visits to free up space,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a member of the Harvard team that developed the model.

Even with these measures, Boston hospitals still need to increase capacity by 46 percent in the moderate scenario. Building field hospitals, like in New York, could be an option but we need to think creatively about staffing these hospitals, Tsai added.

The maps also show why social distancing is so imperative: With strict distancing, the virus infects fewer people, and spreads slower. Thus, the number of people showing up at the hospital is lower, and is also distributed over a longer period of time, putting less strain on services.

Use the maps below to look at possible scenarios for every hospital region or state in New England, and see the strain the coronavirus crisis could put on the health care system.

About the data:

The Harvard Global Health Institute team that developed the model is comprised of Ashish K. Jha, Thomas Tsai, Jose Figueroa, Benjamin Jacobson, and Stefanie Friedhoff.


Six-, 12-, and 18- month time periods were based on outcomes from moderate, effective, or strict social distancing, respectively. The model assumed hospitals could free up capacity by 50 percent if they canceled elective procedures.

Anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of adults could become infected, per estimates by Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

To calculate how many people would be hospitalized, the model used research from Wuhan, China. The hospitalization rate for those under 65 was 19 percent, and over 65 was 28.5 percent. The average length of the hospital stays was 12 days.

Read more about the institute’s methodology and data here.