Area hospitals mindful of COVID uptick

  • Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. Gazette file photo

Published: 8/16/2021 8:55:39 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations begin to rise in western Massachusetts, officials at the region’s two major hospitals say they are getting ready to handle a potential significant surge should it arise.

Baystate Health has seen “increased activity” of what it refers to as its “incident command reconnaissance team.” Incident command aims to manage disasters in a non-chaotic way, includes managing communication, staffing, hospital operations and clinical planning education, for example.

“It (the team) never went away, but the activity has increased,” said Dr. Armando Paez, head of the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, who is involved in the clinical planning and education team of incident command.

Meanwhile, at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, officials said the current situation is “very manageable,” according to Dr. Estevan Garcia, Cooley Dickinson’s chief medical officer.

Even though CDH has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, the number of those cases — and hospitalizations — are lower than earlier in the pandemic because of high vaccination rates, Garcia said.

“It’s preventing folks from getting as sick,” he said.

According to the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, as of Aug. 12, 70% of eligible people in Hampshire County had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. The number is 64% when looking at the entire population, which includes children under 12, who are ineligible for the vaccination at this time.

Garcia said that from mid-May through most of June, the positivity rate at CDH was essentially zero. That rate stood at 2.3% for the week of Aug. 7 to 14, 2.5% for the week of July 31 to Aug. 7, and 1.3% for the week of July 24 to July 31.

Positivity rates represent the number of positive COVID-19 cases out of the total number of tests done.

Garcia noted that the positivity rate was almost 9% at Cooley Dickinson at its height, with a higher number of hospitalizations and hospitalizations in the intensive care unit.

Currently, CDH has one to two hospitalizations for COVID-19 a day, although this sometimes represents the same person staying multiple days. Garcia said that people hospitalized for COVID-19 generally stay for three to five days, and described the current situation as “very manageable.”

Garcia said most vaccinated people who get COVID are managing OK from a symptomatic perspective, even though they may be contagious. “It’s usually a mild illness,” he said.

He said he’s the most worried about people who haven’t gotten vaccinated, the elderly, and those under 12 who cannot get vaccinated.

“The best thing anybody can do today is get vaccinated,” Garcia said, noting that there’s an opportunity for more COVID variants to emerge if not enough people get vaccinated.

He said that masking indoors is recommended, regardless of vaccination status, as is practicing social distancing. However, he said that going maskless outdoors is “very safe.” That said, he did note that gathering close together when one doesn’t know people’s vaccine status, even outdoors, is a risk.

“It’s all about minimizing risk,” Garcia said.

Garcia said that the hope is that vaccines will become available for those age 5-11 in November. He also said that people should tell unvaccinated people why they got vaccinated.

CDH is part of the Mass General Brigham system, and employees there have until Oct. 15 to be fully vaccinated, a mandate that was announced last week, although employees may seek religious or medical exemptions.

Baystate Health

The number of hospitalizations for COVID in the Baystate Health system has increased, with 47 COVID-19-positive patients being hospitalized at Baystate Health’s facilities, five of whom are in the ICU at Baystate Medical Center, as of Monday afternoon.

“As other hospitals are also experiencing, we are having an increase in the number of hospitalized patients,” Paez said. “That is along with the increasing number of cases in the state as well as in the county, based on what the (state Department of Public Health) is releasing.”

Paez said that Hampden County has one of the lowest numbers of vaccinated people by percentage in the state. At the same time, he said that although there are breakthrough COVID-19 infections in vaccinated people, they are not common.

“We are preparing for a worst-case scenario,” he said.

The positivity rate in Hampden County is 4.93% for the seven-day average up to Aug. 12.

Paez said that the delta variant has been underestimated and that Baystate is looking at data from other countries, as well as how to prevent a big surge of cases in the fall and winter when people are more often indoors. He also said activity at its incident command for COVID-19 has increased.

“I think we have learned a lot,” he said. “I think we are better prepared now.”

Paez said in addition to elderly folks, the younger population is now a concern, especially with students returning to school in the fall.

“We anticipate with the cooler months coming, fall and winter, as well as the kids going back to school — many of the kids are unvaccinated — that there may be a potential surge,” he said. “Not as big as before, but time will tell because of this delta variant.”

The good news, he said, is that as of Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration has authorized a booster shot for immunocompromised patients.

Late last month, Baystate Health announced it would require all employed staff of the hospital — including those working remotely, clinical staff, contractors, volunteers and students — to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, although religious or health exemptions may be applied for.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.
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