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Hospitals prepare for Omicron-fueled surge as Mass. approaches 1 million COVID cases since pandemic began

Residents lined up for hours Monday outside the Codman Square Health Center in Boston for coronavirus testing. Some people in line reported being told that testers had called in sick, adding to the wait.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Massachusetts implemented new pandemic protocols Monday, as the state prepared already understaffed hospitals for an expected Omicron-fueled surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks.

All Massachusetts hospitals must postpone or cancel elective procedures to alleviate a health care system facing critical staffing shortages due to resignations and early retirement. To further ease the burden, the state deployed National Guard troops to 55 Massachusetts hospitals and a dozen ambulance services to assist with patient care and transportation.

The preparations come as Massachusetts recorded a total of 993,038 cases and crept closer to the staggering milestone of one million statewide cases since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.

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“In the last three days, over the recent holiday weekend, we had well over 500 calls around need for treatment for COVID-19. And that’s really an unprecedented number in terms of the demand,” said Rajesh Gandhi, infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

There are currently 1,636 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, with 378 of them in intensive care units and 242 of them intubated. A year ago, there were 2,230 patients hospitalized, with 430 in the ICU and 234 of them intubated.

Though early studies out of South Africa, Scotland, and England suggest that the new Omicron variant may cause less severe illness, experts warned that such conjectures might underestimate the danger the highly transmissible variant poses during a surge.

“We have to be mindful of the fact that even if something is more mild if a far greater number of people is infected, the total number of severe infections could well be just as many, if not far more, than we’ve seen in previous ways,” said Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Mass General and co-lead of the viral variants program for the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness. “So I think we have to kind of hold these two realities of Omicron in our mind as we think about how to go forward.”

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In a move propelled by the recent surge in cases and a greater understanding of the course of the virus in the body, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday cut isolation restrictions for Americans who catch the coronavirus from 10 to five days and similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the country is about to see a lot of Omicron cases.

“Not all of those cases are going to be severe. In fact, many are going to be asymptomatic,” she told the Associated Press on Monday. “We want to make sure there is a mechanism by which we can safely continue to keep society functioning while following the science.”

The move comes only days after the CDC shortened the isolation period for health care workers who contract COVID-19 to seven days (if accompanied by a negative test) in an effort to ease the burden on short-staffed hospitals. Eighteen percent of health care staff have quit since the pandemic began, while 12 percent have been laid off, according to survey research company Morning Consult.

Omicron disruptions have similarly plagued the airline industry, which saw thousands of flights grounded across the nation over the holidays due to staffing shortages tied to the virus.

The pandemic-fueled pandemonium was on display at Logan International Airport this weekend with 138 canceled flights and 388 delayed flights on Saturday and Sunday combined. By nightfall Monday, 149 flights arriving at or departing from Logan had been delayed and 41 had been canceled, according to the flight-tracking website Flight Aware.

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As high as the case numbers appear, they likely lowball the true scope of the virus’s reach. Massachusetts, as well as much of the nation, has struggled to meet the crushing demand for tests. Before and after the Christmas weekend, hours-long lines snaked for blocks at PCR testing sites, and pharmacies took to posting handmade signs to their doors indicating they had no at-home rapid tests available.

“Seeing how tough it was for some folks to get a test this weekend shows that we have more work to do, and we’re doing it,” President Biden said Monday from the White House in a conference call with governors. “We have to do more. We have to do better. And we will.”

Rapid tests, which return results in a matter of minutes (as opposed to the hours to dayslong wait for PCR results), have recently emerged as a coveted tool in the fight against the highly transmissible Omicron. They also can be administered at the user’s discretion, a double-edged sword. The convenience of the test allows for frequent and discretionary testing, but positive rapid tests are not always counted in the overall total.

“They’re not exactly required to report that positive test to any state or federal agency. And honestly, there’s no central reporting mechanism to do so anyway,” said Asaf Bitton, associate professor of health care policy in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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The detection of coronavirus in Boston-area wastewater, an early-warning sign for a coming COVID-19 surge, reached record-breaking levels this weekend, with the most recent seven-day average soaring past previous record highs set earlier this month.

Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics, which tests samples coming into MWRA’s Deer Island treatment plant, said it found that the amount of virus in the wastewater is correlated with newly diagnosed coronavirus cases four to 10 days later.

“We’re going to see cases continue to spike, but that shouldn’t be the primary way we think about this pandemic anymore,” Bitton said. “The number that we’re sort of all trying to treat and prevent now is, really, the hospitalizations and deaths, the system collapse numbers. That’s what we need to be most aware of.”



Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her @hannaskrueger.