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Hospital group boss cites ‘terrifying increase’ in hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Mass.

An ambulance bay at St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford on Jan. 27, 2021. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The head of an influential hospital trade group told a legislative committee Thursday that the state has had a “terrifying increase” in the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients over the past month, as medical facilities are contending with shortages in staffing and available beds.

“As of Tuesday, there were 1,411 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 [statewide]. A month ago there were 550,” said Steve Walsh, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, “

The more than two-fold spike, Walsh said in remote testimony before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness, is “a terrifying increase” in patients. Hospitals had anticipated an uptick around Thanksgiving, he said, “but it was more than we thought.”

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“And if that trend continues after the New Year, we’re going to have increasing problems,” he said. A mass casualty incident or bad flu outbreak could then hinder the capability of the hospital system to cope with demands, he said.

Asked about the recent loss of some 500 ICU and medical beds across the state — prompting the Baker administration to advise hospitals cut certain non-essential, elective procedures by half — Walsh said Massachusetts hospitals are preparing for all possible contingencies.

“As of this point, we have always been able to find that ICU bed” when necessary, Walsh said, but preparations are always taking place.

Statistics posted Thursday on the state’s Department of Public Health website said 1,411 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Massachusetts, including 326 patients in ICUs, 176 of whom were on ventilators.

The current tally of hospitalized COVID patients is roughly double what it was on Sept. 14, when 706 patients were in the hospital, according to DPH data.

Lawmakers also heard Thursday from Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, founding director of Boston University’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy and Research, who spoke about the critical need of housing security amid the pandemic — and the threat posed without it.

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“In the context of Omicron, what will happen to people who can’t stay in their homes?” Bhadelia said. “They will end up having to go to congregate housing, which will be overcrowded. Which will then ... increase the risk of potential transmission.”

Omicron, a highly transmissible variant that has been confirmed in COVID-19 patients in Boston and in Middlesex County, has prompted many communities to re-implement some form of a mask mandate.

Dr. Dan H. Barouch, a Harvard Medical School professor and director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told the committee that the Omicron variant has generated global concern because of its high capacity for mutations..

“In the spike protein itself, [it has] about 30 mutations — much more than Delta. ... So, the Omicron variant not only has a lot of mutations, but it has a lot of mutations that are right where antibodies bind, which raise the suspicion that it might be able to evade antibodies.”

Public health officials, meanwhile, continue to urge residents to get fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.

In a separate development on the vaccine front, the Boston Black COVID-19 Coalition blasted the Baker administration for what the advocacy group said was a misguided decision to have Fenway Park start offering booster shots to people, beginning in January.

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The group contended in a statement that situating the booster site at Fenway will limit accessibility to communities of color.

“The same administration took heat back in January, after waxing on at daily Covid press briefings that Black/Latino communities, the most vulnerable and hardest hit by COVID, would get priority attention and access to vaccines when they become available,” the statement said. “He then announced that first site would be GILLETTE STADIUM and FENWAY PARK would soon follow as the second. No one should have been surprised when according to their early stats, 96% of those accessing the first round of vaccines at Fenway, were white.”

Kate Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said Thursday night that ensuring equity in battling the COVID-19 crisis has been a priority for the Baker administration and that details for establishing four additional booster clinics in Roxbury are being finalized.

“A core principle of the state’s vaccine program has been to address vaccine equity and ensure access for the Commonwealth’s most disproportionately impacted communities, a principle that has continued to be a priority in rolling out boosters,” she said in an e-mail.

The administration announced in June that it had awarded $3.2 million in grants and contracts to community-based organizations as part of the initiative, in an effort to increase awareness and access to vaccines in the state’s 20 hardest-hit cities and towns.

At the time, the administration said seven new nonprofits had been awarded $2.2 million to support vaccine navigation services and customized vaccine administration, building on $6.8 million previously awarded to 25 other groups.

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But the Boston Black COVID-19 Coalition said Thursday that more must be done.

“Today, BBCC had to cancel 2 more vaccine clinics scheduled at senior developments in Roxbury, due to the lack of clinicians and vaccine availability in the neighborhoods of [Roxbury/Dorchester/Mattapan] where, in fact, the need is so critical,” said coalition member Dianne Wilkerson, a former state senator, in the group’s statement.

At this moment, Wilkerson said, “it is not and it makes no sense to, once again, to site a mass vaccination site in Fenway Park, when the greatest demand and documented need is on the other side of town.”



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