NEWTON, Mass. — No, the staff at Tufts Medical Center didn’t hold a celebration, but it was a momentous occasion, just the same. For the first time in two years, the hospital reports it has zero COVID-19 patients in its ICU and just a smattering admitted elsewhere.
“It really does reflect a change in where we are in the pandemic,” said Shira Doron, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts. “That’s not to say that we won’t see ebbs and flows and rises and spikes and surges in the future. We don’t know what the future holds.”
And if the past is any guide, it’s likely those ICU beds will be occupied by COVID-19 patients at some point down the line. But this is still a moment exhausted healthcare workers can savor.
“We have at least for some time now, going forward, what people refer to as a wall of immunity,” Doron said. “It isn’t perfect. It isn’t herd immunity. It isn’t going to make COVID-19 go away by a long shot. But it is helping to keep patients out of the hospital.”
Infection and vaccination built that wall of immunity. What remains to be seen is how durable it turns out to be and/or whether a new COVID-19 variant could outsmart those defenses. While happy to have this wave in the rearview, Doron knows how fragile these lulls can be.
“Our optimism is a lot more cautious these days,” she said. “We were really optimistic this time last year with cases going down. And we really thought the worst was behind us.”
And then came the Delta variant in mid-to-late-summer of 2021 -- and three months later, the Omicron variant.
“Now that we see how bad it can be in a post-vaccine world I think we will enjoy the quiescent periods,” Doron said. “But we absolutely need to be and are preparing for the possibility of future surges.”
Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, is seeing COVID-19 cases rise as a result of the BA2 sub-variant -- but only slightly. Doron said the more meaningful number to look at, at this point in the pandemic, is ‘patients hospitalized.’ And that is down in the state by nearly half since the beginning of March. As of this week, the 7-day hospitalization average stood at 224 patients, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Other Boston-area hospitals are seeing COVID-19 numbers shrink, as well. At Newton-Wellesley, they are treating just two COVID-19 patients -- neither is in the ICU. Thirteen patients at Brigham and Women’s have COVID-19 -- but just three are in the ICU. At Mass General, the numbers are similar: 16 infected patients, three in the ICU.
Doron said that, in general, the healthcare system in Massachusetts coped well during the pandemic -- but at times, resources of every kind were tested.
“The Omicron wave really stretched our capacity in terms of staff,” she said. “Whereas the original wave really stretched our capacity in terms of space. Both of those things need to be considered for the future.”
Schools have seen greater numbers of students and staff testing positive over the past week according to the latest data released by the state.
There were 1,993 students who tested positive for COVID-19 between March 17th and 23rd, compared to 1,597 during the previous week, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Additionally, 601 staff members were positive for the virus compared to 425 during the week prior.
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