COVID-19 stressing central Mass. hospitals

Worcester field hospital opening set for Dec. 6

WORCESTER, Mass. — Forty percent of the nearly 22,000 cases of COVID-19 in Worcester County have been in its largest city. In recent weeks, Worcester has seen a sharp increase in positive tests, with rates even doubling.

And, increasingly, some of those cases are ending up in area hospitals.

“Just over the last couple of days I’ve admitted a number of patients who are suffering from COVID-19,” said Dr. John Broach, an emergency department physician at UMass Memorial Medical Center. “So I know that the hospital increasingly has patients who have COVID and some of whom have needed critical care resources as well.”

“We’re clearly seeing a big upswing in cases,” added Dr. Richard Ellison, an infectious disease specialist at UMass Memorial, who also serves as the hospital’s epidemiologist. “Three- to four-fold upswing compared to where we were in October.”

And, Dr. Ellison said, the worst weeks are likely ahead for hospitals, if the pattern of COVID-19 matches that of a set of coronaviruses Americans deal with every year – those that cause the common cold.

“They go from very few, almost no cases seen in the spring and summer to 20- or 30-fold increase in the number of people getting those [common cold] infections in November and December,” Dr. Ellison said. “So the common cold is always spread when people move indoors in the northern hemisphere.”

Dr. Ellison said COVID-19 is as contagious as the common cold and likely as contagious as influenza.

So far, Dr. Broach said the hospital hasn’t seen much in the way of influenza cases in the emergency department at UMass, which he partly attributes to the hygienic measures many have adopted to ward off COVID-19.

“It’s still relatively early in the flu season,” he added.

>>>MORE: Total confirmed COVID-19 cases eclipse 200K in Mass. as testing continues to increase with Thanksgiving looming

If those suffering from severe flu, or any disorder that is not COVID-19, need medical attention, hospitals in Worcester are determined they will have access during this latest wave.

Dr. Broach noted that, in the spring, many patients with even serious disorders, such as heart attacks, avoided hospitals for fear of becoming infected. At least one study showed those decisions sometimes led to fatal consequences.

“The worst tragedy would be that, not only did we lose people or have people suffer from COVID-19, but we had sort of these secondary effects of people not getting the care they needed,” Dr. Broach said.

That is one of the primary reasons the DCU Center is, as in the spring, undergoing conversion to a ‘field hospital’ for COVID-19 patients. Broach will serve now, as before, as medical director of the facility.

“I would anticipate that we’ll take patients in the first day that we’re open,” he said. “We’ll have 215 beds, but we certainly won’t start with 215 patients. We anticipate that in the first few days we’ll be able to take up to 25 and then we’re going to increase that number as the need exists, if it does, by increments of 25 or more.”

One problem for all Massachusetts hospitals is the lag time that’s developed around COVID-19 testing. While the national average is above two days, overwhelmed facilities are now getting results back to patients sometimes in five days or more.

That’s a serious problem, Dr. Ellison said.

“The average incubation period – the time when someone gets exposed and they developed symptoms – is about five days,” he said. “So if you have to wait five days for a test result, you could easily have been exposed in the time period while you’re waiting for the results.”

And if you’re infected during those five days, you could easily transmit the virus to others.

>>>MORE: Needham urgent care facility reaches daily COVID-19 testing capacity 30 min. after opening

“Unfortunately, the entire testing system is pretty much stretched to the max capacity right now,” Dr. Ellison said.

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