Sounding a new urgency over a resurgent pandemic, Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday deployed the National Guard to help hospitals in Massachusetts struggling with staff shortages and ordered them to cancel nonessential surgeries to accommodate a tide of patients sick with COVID and other serious illnesses.
However, Baker stopped short of imposing a statewide mask mandate, instead opting to issue an advisory recommending that people should now wear masks inside public places.
Administration officials said up to 500 National Guard members, including 300 to be trained this week, would be sent to assist at 55 hospitals and 12 ambulance service providers. And effective Monday, hospitals must cancel all nonessential surgeries that require patients to stay overnight, to make beds available for those with the most urgent medical needs.
“There’s no question the next few weeks will be enormously difficult for our health care community,” Baker said at the State House.
But with COVID case counts soaring and the worst of the Omicron variant still to come, the governor again declined to mandate masks as many doctors and health experts have urged, a stance that prompted renewed criticism from Democrats.
“If people want to take an extra step, everyone knows they can put on a mask in a crowded indoor place,” Baker said.
Marylou Sudders, the state secretary of health and human services, said National Guard troops would help with nonmedical jobs, such as driving ambulances to transfer patients from hospitals to long-term-care facilities, moving patients around inside hospitals, delivering meals, and observing patients who are at risk of harming themselves. The National Guard has previously been deployed during the pandemic, providing assistance in COVID testing, driving school buses, and erecting field hospitals.
Hospitals and ambulance companies were still waiting for details about the plan Tuesday but said they welcomed the help.
“Every staff position within the hospital is stressed right now, and there are shortages in every area,” said Steve Walsh, chief executive of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association. “We are certainly grateful the National Guard will help support our providers.”
“The goal would be to get folks trained, staffed up, and in the hospital as early as next week,” he said.
State officials on Tuesday reported 5,531 new COVID cases and 1,612 people with COVID hospitalized. COVID hospitalizations have more than doubled since Thanksgiving.
Hospitals expect the numbers of patients with COVID, flu, and other illnesses to rise in the coming weeks, on top of unprecedented demand from sick patients who delayed care earlier in the pandemic.
Dr. Ron Walls, chief operating officer at Mass General Brigham, said help with patient transportation could free up hospital beds more quickly for patients in need. One recent day, more than 100 patients at Mass General Brigham’s two biggest teaching hospitals were waiting for ambulance rides so they could be discharged to rehab or nursing facilities, he said.
“We have many patients waiting over a day just for ambulance transport,” Walls said. “They don’t need an acute-care hospital anymore and they’re essentially just blocking that bed.”
Mass General Brigham is canceling or postponing at least 50 procedures a day to comply with the new rules on elective surgeries. The delays will continue for at least a month, “but so much is going to depend on what happens with Omicron,” Walls said.
Dr. Kevin Tabb, chief executive of Beth Israel Lahey Health, said many hospitals in his system have already canceled all surgeries that require an inpatient stay and can be safely postponed.
Hospital leaders are preparing for the possibility that the coming surge of COVID could be worse than last winter, given the highly contagious nature of Omicron. They expect COVID cases and hospitalizations to increase for at least the next several weeks.
“I believe it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Tabb said. “We will get through it and we will get to the other side, but this will be a very difficult end of December, January, and probably February.”
Dennis Cataldo, chief executive of Cataldo Ambulance and president of the Massachusetts Ambulance Association, said he was concerned about training members of the National Guard to safely help transport patients.
“If a Guard member customarily drives a Toyota Prius, but if we put them in a 10,000-pound vehicle, it’s not the same to operate,” he said.
Cataldo estimated it would take at least 40 hours of intensive training before a Guard member could be paired with an experienced EMT or paramedic. But he is still concerned about patient safety and legal liability if there was an accident or other problem.
“We hope to be able to find opportunity here to help alleviate the stress in the health care market for lack of ability to find transportation,” he said. “But there is no easy fix in my mind.”
For the first time Tuesday, the state Department of Public Health released its count of Omicron cases, offering an early glimpse of the toll the variant is quickly taking. Based on samples that have undergone genomic sequencing so far, there were 71 confirmed cases of Omicron in the state.
Sequencing takes a week or longer, so the numbers reflect a snapshot from several days ago, and Omicron is increasing exponentially. The variant already accounts for the majority of COVID-19 cases in the state, according to an analysis by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Most of the 71 infected with Omicron were young: 25 were age 19 and younger and 38 were age 20 to 39. Getting a booster shot clearly helped: 40 were unvaccinated, 26 were fully vaccinated, and only five had been boosted.
Meanwhile, Baker’s response to the surge was criticized by several Democrats.
Representative Ayanna Pressley said the governor should implement a statewide mask mandate and distribute more free rapid tests to protect people from infection. Senate President Karen Spilka also called for a mask mandate and said the administration should act more aggressively.
Senator Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, said that deploying the National Guard shows “a failure to institute a robust preventive transmission policy in the first place.”
Rausch and a coalition of 41 organizations, 18 legislators, and 120 health professionals are promoting an “action plan” that calls for an indoor mask mandate; mobile vaccination clinics; workplace protections including paid sick leave; protections against foreclosures, evictions, and rent increases; and school policies such as masking, contact tracing, and pool testing.
Julia Raifman, who studies population health and health disparities at the Boston University School of Public Health, said Omicron “is a serious threat to all of us in Massachusetts.”
“Mask policies are one of the most effective and straightforward policies to begin reducing spread today,” she said. “Every leader who implements a mask policy makes an enormous difference.”
Baker administration officials, however, noted that even in Massachusetts, some public health experts don’t favor mask mandates. And the governor seemed unmoved when questioned Tuesday.
“I have no interest in putting a mandate on this issue given all the tools that are available,” Baker said.
“At this point in time we have vaccines, we have rapid tests, we have our testing sites, and people know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t with respect to combating the virus,” he said.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this story.
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