Is the use of the term "capacity" in the following sentence right?

ICU capacity dropped below the 15 percent threshold in some regions.

I has been a bit baffled. The word "capacity" means the maximum amount that can be contained, so I though it a constant fixed figure that does not change easily--at least in the short term unless new ICUs are built.

But the sentence above, from an article on a major news site, says it "dropped", implying a change--a decrease--in capacity (supply of ICUs), as patient numbers (demand for ICUs) increased.

Please tell me how to define and understand the word "capacity." Thanks for your exceptional knowledge.

  • 3
    It's careless use of the terminology. They should perhaps said "available capacity", or used a different wording. – Hot Licks Dec 7 '20 at 23:15

I imagine that you have seen dictionary definitions supporting your interpretation of capacity as the maximum that can be held.

For example,

Capacity = the total amount that can be contained or produced

Cambridge dictionary

The use of the word in your sentence is a shortened form of “residual capacity”, the amount of the maximum that remains to hold new admissions to ICUs. If 85% of the (maximum) capacity is already in use, the residual is 15%. Hence we may understand that in some regions the amount of (maximum) capacity already in use rose above 85%, thus reducing (residual) capacity to less than 15%.

Or it may be similarly interpreted to mean the capacity available to accept new admissions to the ICU. As patient numbers in the unit increase, the available capacity decreases.

  • I am somewhat puzzled by or at the beginning of the last paragraph. How is what you say in that paragraph different from what you said before? – jsw29 Dec 12 '20 at 17:42
  • @jsw29 Oh the joys of English! I used Or in the sense As an alternative way of saying the same thing rather than using it to introduce a different thing. I hope that makes it clearer? – Anton Dec 12 '20 at 18:16

I am so glad you asked this. I have read at least half a dozen news outlets make this mistake in California in the last week.

I just read one that said "ICU capacity has dwindled across the state," which is totally wrong. That would mean the total number of Intensive Care Units, both in use and out of use, has dwindled.

Capacity means 100% of something. You could say 85% of capacity and it would be correct. Or you could say only 15% of capacity is left/available.

Funny thing is that even though it is wrong it is not getting caught by the news editors because everyone who reads it still knows what is meant.

  • This use of capacity may be imprecise, but it can hardly be said that it is 'totally wrong'. As has already been explained elsewhere on this page, capacity is here a shortened form for residual capacity or available capacity or the capacity to admit new patients. – jsw29 Dec 12 '20 at 17:42

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