The number of hospitalized coronavirus patients is steadily increasing across Massachusetts as health care leaders dig in for what they suspect will be a long winter of illness and unease.
Since late August, when the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients across Massachusetts hit a low, the caseloads are up 41 percent, according to Sunday’s data from the state’s Department of Public Health. The steepest increases have come in the past two weeks.
Eight months after most residents were urged to stay home and help “flatten the curve” to protect hospitals from a tsunami of infected patients, the new mantra from health leaders to their workers is to “remain vigilant.”
The rise in the number of infected patients is a far cry from the spring surge. Yet it is increasingly apparent among several hospitals in so-called red zones — communities determined by state health officials to have an elevated risk of coronavirus infections.
At Lowell General Hospital, which counted fewer than a handful of COVID-19 patients most days in August, the daily census is now close to three times that, between 11 and 15 patients, said Dr. Adam Weston, an infectious disease physician.
“The good news is we haven’t seen our numbers dramatically climb upward, but there’s the worry that we have ongoing community spread and that could be a harbinger of additional cases,” Weston said.
Lowell is among roughly 30 cities and towns where state officials determined Wednesday infection rates are too high to allow more business and entertainment venue reopenings.
Like a lot of hospitals, Lowell General was suddenly swamped with COVID-19 patients in March and April and had to halt many other medical tests and surgeries to stay ahead of the surge. But that peak subsided fairly rapidly, and hospitals in the summer had mostly returned to normal operations.
Now, Weston said, his hospital and colleagues in the Wellforce system, which includes Tufts Medical Center in Boston and MelroseWakefield Hospital, believe they will be shouldering an elevated plateau of coronavirus patients for months.
“Many are predicting a less tall, but much longer curve, spread out over a longer period of time," he said.
“The hope and plan is a co-existing of COVID care and regular hospital care,” he said. “But all plans are fine until they get on the battlefield.”
At Southcoast Health, which includes St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, the number of daily COVID-19 cases has nearly doubled in the last two weeks, from 10 to 18. New Bedford is among the red zone communities.
Jackie Somerville, senior vice president and chief nursing officer for Southcoast Hospitals Group, worries that too many residents are letting their guard down after months of reminders to wear masks and socially distance. The weariness comes as schools are reopening and the weather is cooling. With more activities moved inside, the risk of infection increases.
“We are definitely seeing COVID fatigue in all the communities," Somerville said. "It’s critical more than ever to be meticulous in terms of using [personal protective gear] inside our hospital and also to be ambassadors for Southcoast to role model what vigilance looks like.”
For the first time, Southcoast is now mandating all employees get flu shots, something many other hospitals did several years ago, to protect patients and workers from spreading that virus. Health leaders say flu shots are imperative this year to avoid concurrent outbreaks of influenza and COVID-19 that could overwhelm the state’s health care system.
“We don’t want to see individuals potentially get both because we don’t know what that will look like," Somerville said.
At UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, there has also been a slow increase of COVID-19 patients. Worcester is another red zone community.
That risk is now showing up among hospital workers, said Dr. Richard Ellison, an infectious disease specialist at UMass.
“At the end of June and through July, we went without a single employee testing positive, but that’s not the case now,” Ellison said. “Several times a week we have an employee identified” as positive. And the infections are not from work, but from transmission out in the community, he said.
Community transmission appears to be growing across a number of Massachusetts communities. Rt.live, the online site created by Instagram’s founders that tracks how fast COVID-19 is spreading in each state, ranked Massachusetts on Sunday with the fourth-fastest spread, behind Wyoming, Montana, and New Hampshire.
Additionally, the latest data from the Massachusetts health department show the number and percentage of positive cases have grown measurably in recent days — troubling trends for the state’s medical society.
“We have serious concerns regarding daily individual positive test results that have doubled since the summer to approximately 3 percent and a sharp increase in daily new cases, which has on several occasions in recent weeks surpassed 500,” the Massachusetts Medical Society said in a recent statement.
“As cool weather approaches, moving many activities indoors, every effort must be made to slow the spread of the virus and fend off a surge in cases that will bring with it the potential to overwhelm and deplete our state’s health care resources and imperil the ability to keep children in school,” the statement said.
The state’s hospital association said health care organizations took advantage of a COVID lull during the summer to stockpile personal protective equipment and prepare for “every scenario” the wily virus may present.
“We are confident that this tireless work will put hospitals in the best possible position to move swiftly when presented with a surge of COVID patients,” the association said in a statement, "while still being able to safely maintain non-COVID services.”