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‘I’ve never seen it this bad.’ Central Mass. hospital system runs out of ICU beds due to COVID, other factors

The Worcester campus of UMass Memorial Medical Center.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file 2015

The largest hospital system in Central Massachusetts, UMass Memorial Health, ran out of intensive care beds Wednesday as critically ill patients with deferred chronic health problems and those stricken with COVID-19 overwhelm health care providers.

Dr. Eric Dickson, president and chief executive of the system, described the situation as dire, but said patients are getting the care they need. UMass has hospitals in Worcester, Marlborough, Leominster, and Southbridge.

“I’ve been an emergency physician in [Worcester] for three decades, and I’ve never seen it this bad,” Dickson said. “It’s creating enormous challenges in Central Mass., with COVID still on the rise.”


Health care providers throughout the state are facing a multitude of new pressures at once, including a severe shortage of workers and an influx of non-COVID patients who deferred care and now require intensive treatment. The pandemic has also spawned a mental health crisis that has brought a flood of children and adults to emergency departments seeking help — only to languish for days or weeks before they receive psychiatric treatment.

“Hospitals across the state are again facing significant capacity challenges, with COVID-19 being only a small part of the equation,” Steve Walsh, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said in a statement.

In an interview, Dickson said all of his hospital system’s 144 intensive care unit beds were filled as of Wednesday morning, with five patients on a waiting list still stuck in the emergency room.

Fueling the problem, he said, is a a reduction in available beds at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, a facility outside the UMass system where nurses are on strike.

A UMass spokesman said that a daily conference call Wednesday among the 11 hospitals in the Central Massachusetts region showed that 10 of them were at capacity in their intensive care units.


The shortage of ICU beds at UMass Memorial was first reported by WBUR.

Dickson, the UMass president, said his workers are battle-weary, and at least one recently confessed to driving to work in tears.

“As hard as it is to say sorry to patients [enduring] long waits in the emergency department, I also find it hard to go down to my [emergency room] and look in the eyes of my caregivers, given what they’re going through,” Dickson said. “So much has been asked of them at this point.”

Dr. Alain Chaoui, who leads the Massachusetts Medical Society’s task force on physician burnout and who is a family doctor in Peabody, said he still hears from too many patients afraid to go to a doctor’s office for fear of becoming infected with COVID — even though physician’s offices are taking extraordinary safety precautions. Then patients get sicker and end up hospitalized, he said.

“The burden is everywhere,” Chaoui said. “Physicians in offices and in hospitals spend two to three hours a night, after they come home and put their kids to bed, to do their charts and records.”

The state’s COVID-19 Interactive Data Dashboard showed Wednesday evening that there were 618 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide in Massachusetts, including 209 people who were fully vaccinated when they contracted the virus.

That’s well below the peak seven-day average of roughly 3,800 patients in April 2020, though hospitalization numbers have been trending up again since July 2021.


The state’s latest data show that roughly 79 percent of hospital ICU beds across Massachusetts are full, although some regions are harder hit than others. It shows 93 percent of ICU beds in the northeastern part of the state are occupied, as are 86 percent of those in Central Massachusetts. And roughly 85 percent of the beds in metro Boston are filled, too.

Dr. Kathryn A. Hibbert, interim chief of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, said Wednesday that the situation at her Boston hospital is “very strained.”

“This is due to both ongoing COVID volume and the many other acute needs of our patients,” she said in a statement. “However, we continue to be able to provide the same very high level of care that we do in less busy times and are working with our partners across the MGB system to care for patients.”

Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is affiliated with Mass. General as part of the Mass General Brigham umbrella, is facing similar challenges.

”Despite these challenges, we continue to deliver our highly specialized and compassionate care to patients who need us,” the hospital said in a statement.

Walsh, of the hospital association, said the public can help to ease the pressure on health care systems across the state.

“They can help by following all public health guidance, seeking care from their doctor or an urgent care center when they are not facing a medical emergency, and — of course — getting vaccinated,” he said. ”At the same time, they should be assured that hospitals are still safe places to seek care if they are in immediate need of medical attention.”


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her @GlobeKayLazar.