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‘It’s all hands on deck’: Hospitals scramble to staff the front lines as surge continues

UMass Memorial Health chief executive Dr. Eric Dickson swabbed the nose of Yamile Colon for a COVID-19 test on Thursday.UMass Memorial Health

Hospitals across Massachusetts are confronting an unprecedented number of workers sidelined by COVID-19 as the Omicron variant continues to surge, and many facilities are already at or near capacity with critically sick patients.

The chief executive of UMass Memorial Health in Worcester donned protective gear Thursday and swabbed the noses of patients at a COVID-19 testing center, filling in for workers who were out.

At Baystate Health in Springfield, retired and senior physicians who don’t normally see patients staffed phones and helped cover telehealth appointments.

And at the two flagship hospitals of Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest health care system, executives put out calls for any and all volunteers to help in their testing and vaccination clinics.

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“This is the highest number of employees out, by many magnitudes, than in the previous surges. This is probably two to three times as much,” said Diana Richardson, chief operating officer at Tufts Medical Center.

Roughly 440 of the company’s 7,400 workers were out Thursday with COVID, the peak so far in a sharp upswing that began just after Christmas, Richardson said.

“It is all hands on deck, for sure, based on an individual’s skill set,” she said.

Public safety workers at Tufts who normally control security have been tapped to hand out masks to patients. And administrators who have a clinical background are helping care for patients, too.

At UMass Memorial, 300 employees, including doctors, nurses, housekeeping, computer technicians, and more were out with COVID, said spokeswoman Debora Spano.

The virus, she said, is rampant in Central Massachusetts, and it’s taking down large swaths of local residents and UMass workers.

“The other day, we did over 1,500 tests in our clinic and it was almost a 40 percent positivity rate,” she said. “Last year at this same time period, we were testing about 1,500 a day as well, and our positivity rate was around 18 percent.”

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Mass General Brigham, which includes Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General hospitals, has recorded 2,311 workers out with COVID over the past week. That’s out of a staff of about 82,000.

Earlier this week, administrators at MGH received an e-mail saying the system was “desperate for staffing support in vaccine and testing clinics.”

It noted that volunteers would be paid over and above their normal compensation, and that certain administrators could receive bonuses of up to $900 for working 10 or more hours.

“Across the organization, we are identifying non-clinical staff who are eligible for redeployment to support our efforts to scale up and staff COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics during this surge,” Mass General Brigham said in a statement. “We will continue to seek additional non-clinical staff members to support this work in the coming weeks as employee absences continue to exacerbate existing staff challenges.”

Researchers who are tracking hospital capacity across the country have designated those in Massachusetts as hitting a “circuit breaker” point, which is when, they say, local officials should consider a temporary pause in activities like indoor dining or large gatherings to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with COVID patients.

While Omicron is generally producing milder illness in fully vaccinated people, the sheer number of people getting infected, coupled with others who do not have COVID but are critically ill from putting off care for chronic illnesses, like heart disease and diabetes, is swamping hospitals.

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During the pandemic’s first wave in early 2020, when the mantra was for everyone to do their share, to stay home and socially distance, hospitals shut down just about everything except for the most critical care. This time, while Governor Charlie Baker last month ordered hospitals to curtail all nonessential medical procedures, some continue to operate clinics that had been closed in the first wave.

“In the first surge, the people from those clinics and procedures went into a labor pool and were redeployed to a lot of the testing sites and labs and everywhere we had people to redeploy,” said Spano, of Memorial Health. “This time, we don’t because we haven’t closed our clinics.”

Dr. Andrew Artenstein, Baystate Health’s incident commander and chief physician executive, said one-quarter of the system’s roughly 1,000 hospital beds are full with patients infected with COVID.

“That’s about 50 percent higher than we were at our peak in previous waves,” he said. “They are coming faster and furious, because of pent-up demand from delayed health care.”

Situated in one of the least vaccinated regions of the state — Hampden County — the local communities and the hospital system have been slammed by sick patients and sick employees, Artenstein said.

Baystate is caring for 12 percent of all COVID hospitalizations in Massachusetts, but the health care system only has about 5 percent of the beds in the state.

“We have roughly 400 of our almost 13,000 employees out with confirmed COVID. Many of those are front-line workers,” he said. “We are in an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

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The hospital system has redeployed employees to help in offices hardest hit with staffing shortages, and curtailed or profoundly reduced every possible diagnostic and therapeutic procedure that is not absolutely necessary, he said.

“This is something we feared in the first 18 months of the pandemic, with employees going down,” he said. “It didn’t happen then, but it’s happening now.”

In Worcester, Patricia Longvall, a 60-year-old registered nurse in UMass Memorial’s cardiac intensive care unit, is in the midst of a 60-hour week. She has volunteered to work many additional hours to help younger colleagues who have children to care for. Longvall’s children are grown.

“I have worked this ICU since it opened in 2007, and I have never seen patients as sick as our patients are now, patients requiring two nurses in the room or one-on-one nursing,” she said.

As in other places, the patients are so sick because many delayed care for months during the pandemic. And most of the critically ill COVID patients, she said, are unvaccinated.

It is exhausting, Longvall said. But she has hope.

“What keeps us kind of going,” she said, “is believing there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.