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Coronavirus cases surge at Boston Medical Center; nearly half of all beds taken up by such patients

Boston’s safety-net hospital turned away some ambulances as ICU units hit capacity

At its peak this past weekend, Boston Medical Center had admitted a total of 183 patients with confirmed or possible cases of coronavirus.
At its peak this past weekend, Boston Medical Center had admitted a total of 183 patients with confirmed or possible cases of coronavirus.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Seriously ill patients showing signs of COVID-19 are approaching the majority of cases in Boston’s safety-net hospital, with 46 percent of beds taken up by these cases and intensive care units briefly hitting capacity over the weekend.

As of Tuesday, Boston Medical Center had reached a new peak, with a total of 187 patients with confirmed or possible cases of coronavirus among its 410 adult beds, a spokesman said. The prevalence of coronavirus cases there appears to be the highest rate so far among major hospitals in the area, according to data tracked by the Globe.

Some ambulances headed for Boston Medical were temporarily diverted to other facilities late Sunday night because of the packed ICUs, though the hospital has since opened up bed space and was no longer turning away emergency crews on Monday, hospital officials said.

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BMC officials say they are looking for innovative ways to boost capacity, adding that the coronavirus numbers are unprecedented and reflect soaring admissions. About a week earlier, the hospital had about half the number of coronavirus-related cases.

“We’re feeling a lot of pressure," said Dr. Ravin Davidoff, BMC’s chief medical officer. "It’s a very high percentage.”

Hospital officials did not say how many beds were available for new patients in the whole hospital, but a 46 percent load from coronavirus-type cases leaves only about half for all the other common reasons people are hospitalized, such as heart disorders, cancer, stroke, and other serious conditions.

Davidoff said critically ill coronavirus patients are staying on ventilators far longer than usual, often 15 days or more, which limits turnover in those coveted ICU rooms.

“These people are very sick," he said.

BMC officials said the hospital’s 63 ICU beds were briefly at capacity over the weekend, though by Monday, staff was able to transfer nine of those patients to other hospitals.

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Meanwhile, coronavirus cases continue their ominous climb in Massachusetts hospitals, though a lack of state data on total admissions on a given day makes it impossible to know just how close the health care system is to being overwhelmed.

Massachusetts General Hospital, with more than twice as many beds as Boston Medical, on Tuesday reported 346 patients related to coronavirus, including 219 confirmed cases, its highest number so far. Based on MGH’s typical bed count, its coronavirus-related cases take up about three out of every 10 beds.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center on Tuesday reported 158 cases related to the virus, 102 of which were confirmed. Its admissions related to the virus were about 20 percent of its typical bed count.

At Boston Medical Center, Davidoff said the staff has found that patients admitted with suspicious coronavirus symptoms, but unconfirmed cases, have positive test results about 60 percent of the time.

Davidoff said demographic data on hospitalized coronavirus patients are incomplete, so it’s too early to say the role it plays in the high numbers at BMC. Data show the hospital is part of — or near — areas with elevated infection rates: Preliminary county-by-county data show Suffolk County, where Boston Medical is located, has among the highest rates of infection, and other city data show higher-than-average rates in poorer neighborhoods near the hospital.

Davidoff said it is also well documented that low-income people have higher rates of some underlying conditions, which make them at high risk for serious cases of the virus.

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“I think we know this virus hits every background. You’re seeing all kinds of people dying," Davidoff said. “But co-morbidity is clearly a factor in who does less well.”



Patricia Wen can be reached at patricia.wen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GlobePatty.