The availability of hospital beds in Massachusetts is dwindling as COVID-19 case counts continue to rise. The latest figures on Friday from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health show that hospitalizations for the disease have now risen 10 times above their all-time low from July, with the seven-day average now at 855 hospitalizations.

“Right now, we have a critical bed shortage at all of our hospitals,” said Dr. Eric Dickson, president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health. “We're boarding patients in the emergency department that need to get to the ICUs, to get to the floors. And that's causing a backup in the emergency departments and delay of care for people that are walking in. So it's a very, very stressful environment in the emergency departments created by the bed shortage.”

The stress on the largest hospital system in central Massachusetts has put all options on the table.

“We have projections for kind of worst case scenarios, and obviously best case scenarios,” Dickson said, “but even under the best case scenario, there's going to be more patients than we have room for within our existing beds. So we're already starting to develop plans to surge into other areas and even developing plans to move into a [field] surge hospital like the DCU [convention center in Worcester], which we've had to do twice before.”

Dickson says 15% of his system's ICU beds are occupied by COVID patients, and that the overwhelming majority of those are unvaccinated.

And the situation is the same for the state’s largest healthcare system, said Ron Walls, the chief operating officer of Mass General Brigham.

“What's really heartbreaking in this, is that so many of the patients that we are taking care of, who are so sick, are unvaccinated,” said Walls. “So, for example, 80% of the patients in our ICUs are unvaccinated patients with severe COVID, and that just doesn't have to be that way. And I would really urge people to get vaccinated and get boosted.”

Public health experts have said the majority of the current wave of cases in Massachusetts continues to consist of cases involving the delta variant. And while the latest WHO-designated ‘variant of concern,’ omicron, continues to garner much attention, experts say it will be several weeks before more data is available on omicron, and until then, it’s not clear whether it poses any additional danger.

But the continuing rise of COVID cases across the state is very much on the minds of health care executives. Walls said beds are pretty full across the Mass General Brigham system, with COVID cases on Friday amounting to 152 patients.

“And just to put that in perspective, in the first wave last spring of 2020, we were at close to 900,” Walls said. “So it's a much smaller number, but it's been a growing number.”

The latest DPH figures on Friday showed 93% of all hospital beds in the state are full, but the seven-day average of hospitalizations is still many times smaller than the first surge of 2020 or the second surge last winter.

Hospitalizations in Massachusetts are now at a level 10 times higher than their all-time low in July 2021, albeit still several times lower than they were during the first or second surges of the virus.
Massachusetts Department of Public Health

Unlike in central Massachusetts, Walls said re-opening a field hospital in the Boston area to deal with a possible surge in cases does not look feasible.

“There's a very acute labor issue which might make setting up a field hospital impossible," he said, “and there are lots of capacity constraints because the state overall is under-bedded for the amount of acute care we need to deliver.”

Walls also said a recently enacted statewide policy of postponing non-urgent surgery isn’t easing Mass General Brigham’s bed shortage, since there are very few such surgeries in their system to begin with.

But at Boston’s Tufts Medical Center, rescheduling some 30% of surgeries has helped, said Chief Nursing Officer Terry Hudson-Jinks. She said they’ve even found specialized staff to add 12 more beds to their ICU in the coming months.

Hudson-Jinks said her system is keeping a “watchful eye” on the troubling rise in COVID cases.

“We are certainly hoping for the best this winter,” Hudson-Jinks said, “but we'll be prepared for the worst. We've learned a lot through this pandemic and one thing we've learned is the need to be ready.”