A Moody's Investors Service report on Thursday suggests that the U.S. healthcare industry is on the rebound from COVID-19, but recovery will likely to slow and uneven. Moreover, the report expressed concerns that regional flareups of coronavirus could majorly set back the return to normal volumes.
Investment firm Jefferies affirmed those worries in hospital traffic data shared Friday, noting "a sharp reversal" in hotspot state Arizona. Analysts tracked "record lows" in Arizona's hospital traffic last week, down from what was thought to be the trough in April and sagging below May recovery amid a significant uptick in COVID-19 cases and protests.
"Whether states can continue their recovery even as cases increase, as we've seen in [Texas] and others, or if the recent reversals in [Arizona, Illinois,] etc. become more widespread is a trend to watch in coming weeks," Jefferies analysts wrote.
Large sections of the healthcare sector all but shut down during the spring as the coronavirus led to nationwide shelter-in-place orders. However, as states and municipalities slowly reopen, so are the doors for hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, clinics and other integral components of healthcare delivery.
As a result, Moody's reported "considerable sequential improvement" during May. For example, while for-profit hospitals saw surgery volumes drop as much as 70% in April compared to the same period in 2019, May volumes were down about 20% to 40% compared to last year's. Hospital-operated ambulatory surgical centers saw an 80% to 90% drop in April volumes, but only a 30% to 40% drop in May.
However, Moody's noted that the "path to normalized volumes are not linear." It also pointed out that emergency room care volumes, which dropped as much as 60% in April, have yet to really rebound, as they still appeared depressed as much as 50% in May.
"This could reflect the prevalence of working-from-home arrangements and people generally staying home, which is leading to a decrease in automobile and other accidents outside the home. Weak ER volumes also suggest that many people remain apprehensive to enter a hospital, particularly for lower acuity care," the Moody's report said.
The firm also noted that "the shape of recovery will vary by state, region and service line, reinforcing the importance of diversification for credit quality among healthcare service providers."
However, Moody's believes that the darkest days of March and April are behind much of the healthcare sector. It noted that most providers have stockpiled appropriate personal protective equipment and have reconfigured their offices, waiting rooms and other infrastructure to protect the health of both patients and employees.
Traffic data from 3,300 U.S. hospitals, tracked by Jefferies via mobile device pings, indicates that compared to January 2019 levels, national traffic lows of 43.7% in mid-April improved to 63.3% by early June.
But state-by-state analysis reveals some parts of the country are trending backwards. Arizona fell to a new low of 28.5% last week after hitting 51.5% on May 20. The analysts also reported Illinois hit its own new low on June 7.
While Moody's did express some concern about regional outbreaks, it concluded that the precautions already taken "make it less likely that the U.S. would once again shut down all non-elective care across the nation if there is a second wave of coronavirus infections."
Moody's did express some concerns about hospital finances, but noted that for-profit hospitals "have unusually strong liquidity" due to payouts from the CARES Act and other government-sponsored financial relief programs.
Medical device firms should be prepared for a long and uneven recovery, according to Moody's. The dental and orthopaedic sectors "will see a greater than average impact from consumers' inability to pay for procedures or their unwillingness to engage with the healthcare system." Moody's forecast "a gradual, uneven pace of recovery," with pre-tax earnings to decline as much as 30% in 2020 compared to 2019, while revenues will shrink around 10%. It expects that earnings will rebound in 2021 to 2019 levels.
Companies that operate in discretionary sectors will be hit harder as they rely on patients able to meet large deductibles or co-payments or to pay for related procedures entirely on their own. Moody's noted that a large number of these procedures are performed in acute care hospitals with the assistance of robotics, but hospitals may be more conservative in their robotics investments given new budget constraints.