CDH grapples with rise in COVID patients, staff burnout

  • Cooley Dickinson Hospital at 30 Locust Street in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 9/2/2021 8:02:27 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After a quiet summer with very few cases of COVID-19, local hospitals are experiencing crowded emergency rooms and staff burnout as a fourth wave of coronavirus infections hits the region, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.

At Cooley Dickinson Hospital, there were no COVID-19 in-patient cases through all of June and the beginning of July, with a case positivity rate of 0%. But that moment proved fleeting, with a positivity rate above 4% and between nine and 10 in-patient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients since Aug. 27.

“We are full,” Estevan Garcia, CHD’s chief medical officer, said in a phone interview Wednesday. Staffing has become a challenge with burnout one of several factors leading to employee shortages as case counts have risen, he said.

“We’re meeting the needs of our community, but our staff is incredibly tired,” he said. 

On Wednesday, CDH had nine hospitalized patients, though a hospital spokesperson did not say how many of those patients were in intensive care.

Garcia said that the vast majority of patients hospitalized in recent weeks have been unvaccinated. He said that there are some breakthrough cases in people who have been vaccinated, but that those patients have far less severe disease and tend to go home rather than staying at the hospital.

“The vast majority of our admissions are unvaccinated,” Garcia said. As for those who are unvaccinated, he said that “certainly people are second-guessing that decision.”

The situation is exacerbated by other respiratory illnesses, like respiratory syncytial virus, that have spread as people have resumed in-person interactions. Known as RSV, it is a common and highly contagious virus that is the most common cause of respiratory hospitalization for infants. It normally circulates in the wintertime, but hospitals across the country are seeing a wave of the virus this summer.

“They didn’t go away this last year and a half we had our masks on and were social distancing,” Garcia said of other respiratory viruses. “They were just waiting on the right opportunity to come back out.”

Public Health experts have said that the biggest way community members can help is by getting vaccinated, which keeps patients out of the hospital. But there are other ways to prevent infection, such as mask-wearing, that are also important.

CDH, like other local hospitals, has implemented a vaccine mandate for its employees, who must be immunized by Oct. 15 or face consequences if they have not obtained a medical or religious exemption.

“We believe it’s the right thing to do,” Garcia said.

Amid the current wave of infections, CDH continues to implement stricter policies to prevent coronavirus from spreading. Inpatients are allowed only two adult visitors per day at CDH — one for behavioral health unit inpatients — and are required to wear hospital-issued masks and social distance.

Despite the challenges with staffing and increased infections, Garcia said the community can continue to rely on CDH. There may be lines that are a bit longer, he said.

“We want to make sure our community knows that we’re there if they need us,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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