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Hospitals readying for a surge in sickness

Kaylen Smith shows how to properly place a face mask over the mouth and nose as she demonstrated the protective gear that must be worn when working with patients with an infectious disease.
Kaylen Smith shows how to properly place a face mask over the mouth and nose as she demonstrated the protective gear that must be worn when working with patients with an infectious disease.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Boston hospitals are training workers, monitoring medical supplies, and readying rooms and beds in preparation for the possible spread of the new coronavirus — including the chance of a sudden spike in sick patients.

“We’re anticipating the possibility of a surge in patients,” said Dr. Paul Biddinger, chief of emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We need to be able to accommodate a surge in ambulatory patients as well as a surge in hospital patients who might need inpatient care.”

Federal officials have urged Americans to get ready for the likely spread of the virus, known as Covid-19, in the United States. State officials said the risk for people in Massachusetts remains low, but they are preparing for the possibility of widespread infection.

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Coronavirus spreads across the globe
A novel coronavirus, Covid-19, has infected hundreds of thousands of people around the world. (Produced by: Brendan Lynch/Globe Staff, Tyler Dolph/Globe Correspondent)

Mass. General — one of 10 hospitals in the country designated as treatment centers for special pathogens — activated its emergency operations plan Jan. 27. This includes frequent meetings of hospital leaders to ensure they can respond quickly to the fast-moving situation.

The city’s hospitals have experience in preparing for and responding to pandemics and emergencies, from the H1N1 flu virus to the Boston Marathon bombings.

“We really have been preparing for an outbreak like this for the last five years or more,” Biddinger said.

Kaylen Smith, a nurse at Mass. General, demonstrated how to remove protective gear while in the ante room, a special section that features negative air pressure to control the spread of infections.
Kaylen Smith, a nurse at Mass. General, demonstrated how to remove protective gear while in the ante room, a special section that features negative air pressure to control the spread of infections.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Mass. General and other hospitals plan to treat very ill patients in special rooms that have negative air pressure to control the spread of infections. That’s out of an abundance of caution, they said, as coronavirus is not thought to be spread through the air over distances greater than six feet.

But if there’s a sudden surge in the number of patients, hospitals will have to use other areas — possibly hallways, cafeterias, and outdoor medical tents, said Dr. Shira I. Doron, hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.

“You hope you never get to that point,” she said. “It would be a tough situation.”

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As the coronavirus has spread from China to other countries in recent weeks, Massachusetts hospitals have been ramping up training for doctors, nurses, and other employees who care for patients.

This includes specific instructions on how to wear and remove protective gowns, masks, eye shields, and gloves, so they can take care of sick patients without catching or spreading the disease.

“Very few health care workers have been properly trained in how to put it on and take it off,” Biddinger said, referring to all the protective gear. Mass. General has recently trained hundreds of employees who work in urgent care, in the emergency department, and on patient floors.

Hospital leaders are also urging their workers to be vigilant about washing their hands and staying home when they’re sick.

Tufts is focused on “keeping [the] hospital workforce safe and healthy, because if hospitals can’t take care of patients, everything breaks down,” Doron said.

Doctors and hospital leaders said they’re worried about shortages of medical supplies, such as the N95 masks needed to protect health care workers from coronavirus. These masks, known as respirators, have finer pores than regular medical masks.

The spread of the virus could further disrupt the global supply of medical equipment, as many medical supplies are made in China.

Dr. Monica Bharel, the Massachusetts commissioner of public health, said state officials are monitoring any effect on the supply chain.

“Anecdotally, we heard of spot shortages,” Bharel said at a Feb. 26 press conference. “Overall, the supplies have been adequate."

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“Each hospital in Massachusetts has an emergency preparedness plan that includes surge planning,” she added.

Most people with coronavirus develop mild illness, but it is thought to have a mortality rate of about 2 percent.

“We’re thinking more about preparing for the possibility for a pandemic — beyond our usual flu pandemic training,” said Dr. Sharon B. Wright, hospital epidemiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“The key thing for us right now is really trying to control the anxiety,” she said. “There’s no reason for panic, and everyone is ready.”

Felice J. Freyer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.