scorecardresearch Skip to main content

‘We ran out of ICU beds today’: Hospitals stagger under strain as COVID-19 cases reach highest level since winter

The Worcester campus of UMass Memorial Medical Center on October 27, 2015.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file 2015

New COVID-19 cases continue to mount at an alarming rate, the state reported Thursday, with more patients streaming into already-strained hospitals just as the new Omicron strain of the virus appears to be taking a deeper hold in the United States.

Massachusetts reported the state had its largest single-day case count on Wednesday since last winter’s surge, with 5,170 new cases and 989 patients with COVID-19 in the hospital. And with several more confirmed cases of Omicron reported in other states, President Biden on Thursday proposed a plan to head off further spread of the virus as the cold weather and holiday season drive more people to socialize in confined indoor spaces.


Also on Thursday, state education leaders reported 8,513 new cases among public school students and 1,396 among staff members for the two-week period that ended Wednesday — a troubling but expected increase as numbers have risen sharply across the state.

Hospitals were already struggling to handle an unprecedented crush of patients with other conditions, including those who delayed care after the pandemic hit. But some doctors said the new wave of COVID patients tended to have milder symptoms than in previous surges, likely because of high vaccination rates and improved treatments.

Anticipating more cases with the onset of winter, Biden proposed battling Omicron through wider availability of vaccines, particularly booster shots, but without new major restrictions on daily life. He wants to require private insurers to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests, in the hope of catching more infections before further transmission. He’s also tightening testing requirements for people entering the United States, regardless of their vaccination status, and extending the requirement to wear masks on airplanes and other public transit through at least the middle of March.


“Experts say the COVID-19 cases will continue to rise in the weeks ahead this winter, so we need to be ready,” Biden said during a visit to the National Institutes of Health in suburban Maryland after a briefing with scientific advisers.

Hospitals in Massachusetts, packed with patients even before the latest COVID-19 surge, this week started canceling scheduled surgeries that can be delayed without serious harm.

We ran out of ICU beds today,” said Dr. Eric Dickson, chief executive of UMass Memorial Health in Worcester. “That’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it.”

Statewide, COVID-19 case totals have more than doubled and hospitalizations have increased by more than 90 percent in the past several weeks. Deaths have not risen as sharply, most likely because vaccination prevents severe illness and treatment improves.

Data from the state Department of Public Health show a rollercoaster pattern of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts this fall. After declining somewhat from a bump in September, the case numbers turned upward starting in late October, and have continued to climb ever since.

On Nov. 2, the seven-day average of cases was 1,180. As of Thursday, the number was 2,993, a 154 percent increase.

“This is not good at all,” said William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology and codirector of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

But he added that the increase in cases, amplified by the holiday, may not be overly worrying given Massachusetts’ high vaccination rates. As of Wednesday, 70.7 percent of the population was fully vaccinated.


“However, the potential for transmission of Omicron should be a concern,” Hanage said in an e-mail.

On Thursday, the United States reported several new cases of Omicron. One was in a Minnesota resident who had not traveled internationally; one in a Colorado resident who had recently returned from South Africa; and five in New York City among people with varying travel histories. The cases suggest the variant is already spreading in this country.

“We have the solution, and it’s called vaccination,” said Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center and an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine. “If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, this is the time to get vaccinated. If you’re already vaccinated, it’s time to get a booster to provide you that extra protection that you’re going to need.”

Deaths “have not been rising yet at the same level we would have expected,” said Assoumou.

She also said people should wear masks in indoor public spaces and get tested, including using rapid, at-home tests, and ventilation should be improved.

“The severe cases continue to occur mostly in unvaccinated people, and in people who were vaccinated but have other medical conditions that make them less likely to respond to treatment,” said Dr. Paul Edward Sax, clinical director of the infectious disease clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Hospital leaders expect COVID hospitalizations to continue rising for at least the next month as more people gather indoors to celebrate the holidays.


“We are preparing for one of the largest, if not the largest, census we’ve ever had in hospitals after the new year,” said Steve Walsh, chief executive of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association.

Hospitals statewide have 500 to 1,000 fewer beds than normal because there are not enough nurses and other professionals to staff them, Governor Charlie Baker said in Worcester on Thursday. That also makes it very difficult to staff a field hospital, he said, as the state did during the early days of the pandemic.

At UMass Memorial Medical Center on Thursday, 60 patients were waiting in the emergency department to be admitted, six in need of intensive care, Dickson said. To free up beds, UMass Memorial has postponed more than 100 scheduled surgeries, many of them joint replacements and other procedures that require an overnight stay.

The Mass General Brigham hospital group was treating about 150 patients with COVID-19 on Thursday, double the number three weeks ago, according to Dr. Ron Walls, chief operating officer. Among those in the ICU, 80 percent were unvaccinated, he said.

Hospitals across Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest health system, started canceling a small share of operations, about 15 surgeries per day this week, Walls said.

People “got into a false sense of security that we didn’t need to be so careful anymore,” Walls said. “We’re going to need to be vaccinated, masked, and careful for many months to come.”


Dr. Doug Salvador, chief medical officer at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, said that, likely thanks to vaccines and new treatments, COVID-19 patients are not as seriously ill as in previous surges. “We have definitely seen fewer ICU and ventilated patients,” Salvador said.

Meanwhile, as some countries close borders or reinstitute lockdowns, Biden said he would not at this time impose additional clampdowns beyond his recommendation that Americans wear masks indoors in public settings, the Associated Press reported.

Likewise Baker said he had no plans to “reinstate a mask mandate of any kind statewide” but added that local communities are free to do so.

Baker supported Biden’s effort to make at-home tests more available. Their use in the schools has enabled students around the state to continue with in-person schooling, he said.

With reports from Globe correspondent Julia Carlin and Felicia Gans of the Globe staff. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal. Martin Finucane can be reached at Felice J. Freyer can be reached at Follow her @felicejfreyer.