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Baystate Health in state of 'crisis' as COVID cases surge

Baystate Nobel Hospital in Westfield. The city of Westfield recently ordered a face mask mandate for indoor public spaces as hospitals strain under the weight of new COVID-19 cases.

Hospital chief races specter of rationed care

Hospital officials in Massachusetts paint a bleak picture as coronavirus infections surge with the current wave of new cases not expected to crest until well into January.

In recent weeks, the largest hospital network in western Massachusetts, Baystate Health, has seen its daily patient census exceed the number of available beds by about 10 percent, resulting in long waits in emergency rooms for a bed to become available –a practice known as boarding.

Along with surging COVID-19 patient counts at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and at the system’s community hospitals in Greenfield, Palmer, and Westfield, 14 percent of staff positions are vacant, and there has been a sharp rise in people seeking behavioral health treatment, said Dr. Mark Keroack, Baystate’s president and CEO.

“We are very much in a crisis state,” Keraock said.

Baystate is not alone.

Steve Walsh, the head of the Massachusetts Health and Hospitals Association, said the recent rise in hospitalizations is “terrifying.” He told a legislative oversight committee Thursday that hospitals are under tremendous pressure.

Last week, the University of Massachusetts hospital system in central Massachusetts said it had run out of available ICU beds.

The state has ordered hospitals to cut back on elective procedures in order to preserve bed capacity.

Speaking with reporters on a conference call Thursday, Keroack said the surge in hospitalizations has led officials to review protocols for rationing care, but he stressed it has not yet reached that point.

“Not yet, thank God, we have not yet had to make that call, but I want people to be ready because we are not far from it. We’re kind of close to the edge,” Keroack said.

Keroack, and other health care professionals, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, have called on Gov. Charlie Baker to bring back a statewide facemask mandate.

“My own feeling is if even if you can increase mask-wearing a little bit with a mandate, it’s probably a good idea, so I would love to see the governor change his mind and do a mask mandate,” Keroack said.

Baker isn’t budging, telling reporters at the State House Thursday that he is not planning to bring back a universal mask requirement.

“If locals believe it is appropriate for their community, they should go ahead and go for it,” Baker said.

Fewer than 20 cities and towns in western Massachusetts have public health orders currently that require face masks be worn in public spaces indoors. Most recently, Westfield announced a mask mandate.

A mask mandate in Springfield expired on November 1st. Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris said there are no plans to reinstate it.

“If a mask mandate is going to be reinstated, it needs to be statewide,” Caulton-Harris said.

“When we instituted it last in the city the compliance and enforcement was really difficult and our residents were not abiding by the mask mandate,” she said.

Coronavirus infection rates in greater Springfield are high, officials say, because vaccination rates are low, especially among younger people. Statewide, more than 70 percent of eligible people are fully vaccinated. In Hampden County, it is just 59 percent – the lowest rate of all counties in the state.

Two-thirds of the COVID patients at Baystate are unvaccinated, said Keroack.

Baystate reported 142 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday. That is almost double the number of COVID patients from two weeks ago.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.