‘Tough Situation': Rising COVID Cases Aren't the Only Strain on Hospitals Right Now

Mass. General teeters between 98% and 100% capacity any given day, with other medical centers seeing similar numbers across the region and smaller hospitals in a more dire situation, one expert said

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Hospitals and clinics are near a breaking point yet again, and COVID-19 isn't the only factor.

There are more and more people landing in urgent and emergency care and not enough medical staff to handle it, experts at major hospitals across Massachusetts said.

"It's a tough situation for all of us," said Dr. Peter Dunn, vice-president of procedural services health care system engineering, capacity management and emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Mass. General teeters between 98% and 100% capacity any given day, with other medical centers seeing similar numbers across the region, said Dunn.

Smaller hospitals are in an even more dire situation, he added.

"They've outstripped their capacity and, as such, the patients in larger numbers are being requested to be transferred or coming via ambulances to Mass. General because the access to care elsewhere is also significantly constrained," Dunn said.

Officials at UMass Memorial Medical Center say a lower vaccination rate in central Massachusetts has contributed to a shortage of hospital beds.

The constraints stem in part from a shortage in medical staff across the country. For example, a nursing strike at Worcester's St. Vincent Hospital sent more patients than usual to UMass Memorial Medical Center, which on Tuesday elevated its alert status.

Staffing is an issue Tufts Medical Center is addressing.

"People are stepping down from the amount of hours that they used to work, so we are always thinking about ways in which we can enhance the number of staff we have caring for patients," said the hospital's chief nursing officer, Terry Hudson-Jinks.

"What's really going on is a little bit of a mystery," said Salem Hospital President Dr. David Roberts.

Roberts explained how the pandemic has created a two-fold problem: health care workers who are burned out and exhausted, coupled with patients who've put off medical care now in need of urgent help.

"It's the downstream effect of delayed care and difficult access throughout the pandemic," he said.

Some hospitals in Maine are delaying non-critical procedures because of COVID-19.

As long as COVID-19 hospitalizations remain steady into the winter, there's a chance the backlog of patients can be eased, Roberts said.

"Let's get vaccinated, let's get over 90% for the state and that will decrease the number of patients we'll see during the winter and that will help out staff," he said.

Experts are pleading with the public to visit a primary care doctor first if there's no real emergency, in order to make room for patients with urgent needs. Above all, they are asking for patience.

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