Local Hospitals Say They Can Treat Non-Coronavirus Patients

BOSTON (State House News Service) — Tufts Medical Center officials have seen a 60 percent reduction in the number of patients seeking care for stroke-related symptoms.

Across the Mass General-Brigham system, there's been a 37 percent reduction in the number of patients coming in for heart attacks. At Baystate Medical Center, a pediatric emergency department that normally sees 120 children a day is now seeing 25 to 30.

Hospital executives shared those statistics at a State House briefing with Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday, emphasizing a theme state officials have been recently highlighting -- that the state's health care system can still treat other conditions as it works its way through the surge in COVID-19 cases, and that patients shouldn't let concerns about contracting the contagious respiratory disease drive them to delay treatment.

Dr. Michael Apkon, the president and CEO of Tufts Medical Center, said the decline in patient volumes can partially be attributed to the drop in activity and travel as people practice social distancing.

"But we also know that part of it is because people are afraid to come to the hospital, and our concern is that that fear is leading to adverse outcomes," he said.

"We've seen children coming to the hospital after having several days of abdominal pain and coming with a ruptured appendix," Apkon said. "We've seen patients with symptoms of stroke that are staying at home long beyond the point at which medications that would markedly improve their outcome could safely be delivered. We've seen patients with kidney disease that are staying at home, coming to the hospital too sick to be cared for and survive."

Dr. Gregg Meyer, the chief clinical officer at Partners HealthCare and interim president of Newton-Wellesley Hospital, said a surgeon he spoke to reported doing "more amputations in the last few weeks than he can ever remember" because patients tried to take care of problems like vascular disease at home to avoid the hospital.

The hospital officials who joined Baker said their facilities have taken precautions to keep people safe, including using masks, decontaminating surfaces, imposing social distancing measures, and keeping COVID-19 patients separate from others.

The Baystate Health hospitals in western Massachusetts have more than 1,000 beds and are currently caring for about 150 COVID-19 patients and 400 patients with other conditions, Baystate Medical Center President Nancy Shendell-Falik said.

"We have space," she said. "We have changed our processes to ensure your safety and encourage you to seek necessary care."

Statewide, there are a total of 18,000 hospital beds, including in intensive care units and temporary COVID-19 field hospitals. Baker said Thursday that more than half of those beds are empty. There were 3,977 patients hospitalized for COVID-19, Baker said, representing about 9 percent of the total 42,944 confirmed cases in the state.

Baker said the state's hospitals have been "well-positioned to help us withstand the surge" in COVID-19 cases, largely because of planning and modeling that allowed for increases in capacity.

Six Boston teaching hospitals worked together to develop a public service announcement urging people not to delay medical care. Baker said the ad will begin airing on Boston television stations Thursday.

"The purpose of all that surge planning and response was to ensure that our health care system would not be overrun and could continue to respond to other emergency needs," Baker said. "People should still call their doctor to talk about their health needs and go to the hospital if they have an emergency."

Baker has been sharing similar messages in his televised briefings in recent days, including a Saturday visit to the field hospital at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Over the weekend, Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey put out a joint message that was shared by faith leaders and groups including the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, the Black Ministerial Alliance and Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

"As we pray for relief from this pandemic and for the lives lost and those sick, Governor Baker and Attorney General Healey want the public to know that they should please go to the hospital or call their health care provider if they are feeling unwell, become injured or need medical attention for non-COVID illness such as chest pain, dialysis, emergency care, and routine vaccinations and treatments," the message said. "They have heard stories of people avoiding care out of a fear of contracting the coronavirus. Hospitals and health care clinics are safe and here to protect you and you should not avoid seeking needed care for non-COVID related illness. Take care of yourselves and one another. Our health care community stands at the ready to help, and your government is here to serve everyone."

Healey's office also plans to distribute flyers to communities identified as COVID-19 hotspots, encouraging people to seek care regardless of their immigration status.

A March 15 order from Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel mandated that Massachusetts hospitals cancel non-essential elective procedures, one of a series of measures to prepare for an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Shendell-Falik said that now, more than a month later, patients' conditions may have changed or worsened.

"If a condition changes, we need people to call us, ask for help, share what's different than it was a month ago so that we can get them in, because perhaps what was elective in early March is now urgent or emergent," she said.

Elective procedures typically make up a significant portion of hospital revenues. Apkon said that while the first priority is patient safety, there is also "absolutely a financial concern."

"There is a significant decrease in activity that would generally provide revenue to hospitals, and we're all working with both state and federal government to take advantage of the relief programs that have been put in place," he said.

Baker said when elective surgeries resume will be "a function of how we deal with the daily count on hospitalizations and some of the other measures we're following."

The latest COVID-19 data report from the Department of Public Health included what Baker described as both "staggering" and "very sobering" death numbers. There were 221 newly reported fatalities on Wednesday, bringing the number of Massachusetts deaths linked to the coronavirus to 2,182.

Baker said it's important to remember the individuals and families behind each death.

"Families are dealing with their loss and uncertain times, unable to gather in person to say goodbye," he said. "I know there's a lot of desire on the part of many of us to get back to some kind of a new normal, but these numbers underscore the importance of continuing to do what we've been doing to push back against COVID-19."

Meyer said that restrictions on hospital visitors mean that COVID-19 patients who die often do so in "relatively lonely circumstances."

"Yesterday at Newton-Wellesley we held a moment of silence for all the patients that we lost with our caregiver team," Meyer said. "I thought it was an important thing to do but as I walked through the door this morning, I was surprised by the number of folks who came up to me and just thanked me, saying how important that was."

By Katie Lannan, State House News Service

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