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State tells Mass. hospitals to slash certain non-essential procedures by half

Dr. Daniella Gonzalez talks with a patient in a hallway of the emergency department at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, MA on Nov. 2, 2021.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The Baker administration on Friday issued guidance to hospitals in Massachusetts to reduce “certain non-essential, elective services and procedures” by 50 percent starting Dec. 15, citing the loss of some 500 medical and ICU beds in the statewide healthcare system.

The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services announced the development in a statement, which said medical facilities are seeing “a high level of patients,” mostly for reasons unrelated to COVID-19. A “critical staffing shortage” has contributed to the loss of beds throughout the Commonwealth, according to the statement.

Officials said the state Department of Public Health on Nov. 23 released guidance to hospitals to reduce some non-essential, elective services by 30 percent. The updated guidance released Friday increased that to 50 percent.

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The statement said that to assure adequate capacity, DPH also issued a COVID-19 emergency order Friday granting hospitals flexibility on ICU nursing staff ratios, as well as guidance permitting hospitals to create capacity in “alternate spaces.”

The added flexibility, officials said, will allow hospitals to redirect ICU nurses to other inpatient beds that currently aren’t being used, due to factors including staffing issues. Hospitals implementing the flexible rotations, the statement continued, must meet certain criteria outlined in the order.

Officials said the guidance was developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association.

“The Commonwealth’s hospitals continue to face significant challenges due to staffing shortages,” said state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders in the statement. “Today’s actions will help alleviate pressures by providing hospitals with staffing flexibility in order to reopen inpatient capacity in licensed and alternate space not currently being utilized.”

Sudders’s words were echoed by Steve Walsh, president and chief executive officer of the hospital association.

“Our healthcare community remains under tremendous pressure, and these flexibilities will provide hospitals with additional tools to remain nimble and accessible as they navigate the weeks ahead,” Walsh said in the statement.

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Governor Charlie Baker and other officials have repeatedly pointed to hospitalization levels as one of the key benchmarks informing their response to COVID-19.

Baker told reporters Thursday that officials are working to determine if the National Guard can support doctors and nurses. Earlier this week, Maine and New Hampshire activated the National Guard to alleviate the strain at hospitals during the latest COVID-19 surge.

On Thursday, DPH said 1,239 patients were hospitalized statewide for COVID-19, including 261 in intensive care units and 149 on ventilators.

The numbers are updated each weekday by 5 p.m.

The Globe reported last week that more patients are streaming into already-strained hospitals just as the new Omicron variant is being reported in a growing number of states.

Hospitals were already struggling to handle an unprecedented crush of patients with other conditions, including those who delayed care after the pandemic hit.

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

Material from the State House News Service was included in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.