Holidays over, COVID-19 reality returns

CHELSEA, Mass. — It curved from Fourth Street down Chestnut Street for two city blocks. Nothing, these days, says the end of the joyful holiday season quite like a line to get tested for COVID-19.

“I almost left about three times now, but I might as well stay on it,” said one woman, who had been standing in line for an hour.

Her reason for getting tested?

“So that I could go back to the office since I traveled for Christmas,” she said.

Others had similar reasons for making the trek to Chelsea, one of the few ‘Stop the Spread’ free COVID-19 testing sites open Sunday in the Boston area.

“I just came back from visiting family,” another woman said.

They are hardly alone. Millions of Americans traveled over Christmas, many more than over Thanksgiving.

And that’s got doctors and public health authorities watching a familiar and frightening pattern unfold. First, cases increase in the community, then, weeks later, the sickest patients wind up hospitalized. They saw it happen after Thanksgiving.

In fact, Dr. Shira Doron, a hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said they are still dealing with COVID-19 patients who picked up the virus at Thanksgiving.

>>>MORE: Local doctor worries about surge in COVID-19 cases following holiday season

“And so we can expect, based on increasing case numbers from Christmas, that we will see rising hospitalizations on top of rising hospitalizations from Thanksgiving,” Dr. Doron said.

And the positive case numbers reported by the state since Christmas have been so high that they pushed the average positivity rate above 8% for the first time since spring.

Dr. Doron said Christmas is not the only consideration.

“And depending on the impact of New Years’, it’s still too early to tell,” she said. “What we’re worried about is that we’ll see that stack on top of the Christmas-related rise and we’ll really run into a situation where we’re having trouble providing adequate care.”

The issue for all Massachusetts hospitals this time around is that they are trying to do it all with leaner margins on personnel.

“Things are quite different than they were during the Massachusetts spring surge,” Dr. Doron said. “On the one hand, we are in better shape for certain supplies like N95s and ventilators. On the other hand, we’re trying to weather this surge without shutting down a lot of the crucial health care services that we did shut down in the spring.”

At the same time, medical personnel are only human.

“We have a lot of people out with COVID,” she added. “We and all hospitals have a lot of people out with COVID. We do not place our hospital employees on quarantine, for the most part, in Massachusetts. So we have people working after exposure; so, we’re able to maintain some of our staffing that way.”

Often, hospitals solve major staff shortages by hiring ‘traveling’ nurses, doctors and others. At this point in the pandemic, that can’t be done.

“We can’t pluck [medical workers] from other parts of the country because everyone’s going through the same thing at the same time,” Dr. Doron said.

As for the vaccines, yes, it’s great they’re here, Dr. Doron said. But the roll-out is slower than expected, and that means nobody should be abandoning masks or distancing.

“We are in the darkest time ever for this country in terms of the pandemic,” she said.

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