Baystate begins to feel strain with COVID surge, staffing issues

  • Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 9/2/2021 8:01:42 PM

As the community enters its fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Baystate Health officials say the burden of cases is contributing to a “tremendous strain on the system.”

“We have 18% of the state’s inpatient COVID cases, even though we have only 5½% of the inpatient hospital beds,” Baystate Health President and CEO Mark Keroack said at a virtual press briefing Thursday morning. “That’s more than three times what you would expect if these cases were distributed evenly across all the hospitals.”

According to Keroack, Baystate Health went from four COVID-19 cases in early July to more than 100 cases across the system last week. Thirteen patients were in critical care units as of Thursday morning.

“Consistent with what others are seeing in the rest of the country, about 75% are unvaccinated, and 25% are vaccinated — and they’re typically people with chronic medical conditions or who are older,” he said. “Fortunately, because of their vaccination status, they tend to have milder disease and shorter hospitalizations.”

He said that with non-COVID-19 patient care factored in as well, Baystate Health hospitals are consistently filled to capacity.

“Every day, we have patients waiting in our emergency room, waiting for a person to be discharged and a bed to open,” he said.

Baystate Health includes Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield and Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer.

Keroack attributed the lower than average vaccination rate of Hampden County, in particular, to the surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“We tried to cover the waterfront in terms of our messaging … and we’re still struggling,” Keroack said. “It’s tough.”

Even amongst a small portion of health care workers at Baystate Health, there is hesitancy to get the vaccine. For some, it’s the result of misinformation spread on social media; for others, it’s a phobia of needles.

“There are some people who are convinced they got COVID and have some immunity, which is correct, but the immunity they get from vaccination is far better,” he said.

As of Thursday morning, about 1,600 of 12,000 team members haven’t been fully vaccinated.

“We do expect the majority of those individuals to get vaccinated,” he said. “In addition, there are some who have been granted medical and religious exemptions.”

The strain on the system is compounded by workforce shortages, he said. As of Thursday, there were roughly 1,400 vacant positions across all categories in the system.

“We’ve brought in well over 100 contract nurses … to fill those gaps,” Keroack said.

Additionally, he noted, Baystate Health has made adjustments to salaries and benefits and offered paid bonuses for hiring and retention.

Although workforce issues don’t appear to be “as dramatic” at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield as at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, he said, the staff is still experiencing the strain.

“Even though they may be close to where they want to be from a staffing standpoint, the staff are strained because many of them have worked extra shifts to cover for open positions we don’t have (filled),” Keroack said.

Capacity issues, however, are an issue at Baystate Franklin.

“At Baystate Franklin (Thursday) morning, there were only three COVID cases, which is great, but as of (Wednesday), all of the beds were occupied and there were a few patients waiting for … a discharge to happen,” he said.

Across the system, there are enough critical care patient beds, he said, though he added it’s still early in the surge to tell.

“Fortunately, the percentage of people who need intensive care seems to be a little bit lower than it was in the spring of ‘20 and in the surge of the holidays,” he said. “I think that’s partly because some of the most vulnerable have gotten vaccinated, and vaccinated people are less likely to require critical care.”

Asked whether COVID-19 is something the community is going to have to live with, Keroack said he anticipates “it’s going to be circulating for the foreseeable future.”

“I’m thinking years from now, COVID or its descendants are probably going to be periodically making an appearance … but not causing such serious disease as what we’re seeing now,” he said.

In the meantime, Keroack said Baystate Health is appealing to the community for help in reducing the burden on the system – through masking, avoiding crowded indoor spaces and getting vaccinated.

“It really is unfortunate to see some of the preventable pain and suffering – not to mention expense – that happens when people who have decided to put off the vaccine end up getting sick,” he said.


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