BOSTON — State officials are taking steps to strengthen the health care system as hospitals battle staff shortages amid a new wave of COVID-19 infections.
The number of infections has increased in recent weeks amid the highly contagious delta variant, despite the highest state vaccination rate in the country. More than 2 million eligible Massachusetts residents are unvaccinated and immunity is declining for fully vaccinated people who have not yet had their booster shots.
Meanwhile, hospitals are grappling with chronic staff shortages that have resulted in the loss of more than 500 intensive care beds across the state.
On Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker took steps to alleviate health care capacity problems by signing an emergency ordinance requiring hospitals with limited acute care capacity to begin reducing elective procedures starting next week.
Under the new guideline, hospitals are required to keep at least 15% of their medical, surgical and intensive care unit beds available for COVID patients.
Hospitals that fail to meet or exceed the capacity threshold should “reduce non-essential, non-urgent scheduled procedures performed daily by at least 30% compared to the average daily procedure volume of the hospital or hospital system in 2019.”
The state’s Department of Health lists non-essential, non-emergency scheduled procedures as procedures that are not medical emergencies.
Hospital leaders say the goal is to protect patients and healthcare workers while ensuring the capacity to handle the expected surge in COVID hospitals.
“Our health care system and state leaders have done a heroic job over the past 20 months to mitigate this public health crisis,” Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said in a statement.
“But we are now seeing significant pressure on hospital capacity, largely due to staff shortages and an influx of non-COVID-19 patients who have delayed care and now require complex medical care,” he continued.
dr. Kevin Tabb of Beth Israel Lahey Health, owner and operator of Addison Gilbert Hospital, said many hospitals are seeing an influx of patients who have postponed surgical procedures because of the pandemic.
“While COVID-related hospitalizations are far from what they were at their peak, we are now caring for an unusually high number of patients with other health conditions,” he said.
The number of new daily cases of COVID-19 rose by more than 2,600 on Tuesday, while newly confirmed virus deaths in Massachusetts rose by 24.
Nearly 740 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, with about 150 in intensive care units.
Nationwide, more than 30 states, including Massachusetts, have reported an increase in infections and hospitalizations from the virus.
Health officials say most infections and serious hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated.
“That’s worrisome because this continues to be a dangerous disease,” said Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease expert and professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health and School of Medicine. “It underscores the need for people who have not yet been vaccinated to get their injections.”
Hamer said there has been a “significant spike” in traces of COVID-19 detected in wastewater tests compiled by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
Wastewater sampling data often predicts trends of COVID-19 several weeks in advance.
“It’s been fluctuating for a few months, but now we’re really on an upward trend,” he said. “That’s a big concern.”
Hamer said there are concerns about a spike in infections during Thanksgiving and other holidays due to the colder weather and people congregating indoors.
Last year, the country saw its greatest spread of the pandemic in the two weeks after Thanksgiving, with nearly 17 million infections and more than 220,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The timing is really bad for us to see an uptick in cases with the holidays and some of the biggest travel days coming up,” Hamer said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the newspapers and websites north of Boston Media Group. Mail him to [email protected].