In a major shift, Massachusetts hospitals will soon begin reporting how many patients are admitted primarily due to COVID-19 versus those admitted for other ailments and also test positive for the virus.
State public health officials currently count both types of admissions in its COVID-19 hospitalization totals. On Wednesday, the state reported that 2,426 patients with COVID-19 were in the hospital, almost exactly matching last winter’s peak of 2,428 on Jan. 4, 2021.
But starting Monday, hospitals will begin reporting whether admissions are primary or incidental to COVID-19, the Department of Public Health said Thursday. That data will likely become public the following week.
That information could be crucial to understanding the implications of the latest COVID-19 surge on hospital capacity, specialists said.
One December weekend, four children with COVID-19 were hospitalized at Tufts Medical Center. But only one was admitted because of virus symptoms; the others tested positive after arriving at the hospital, said Dr. Daniel Rauch, chief of pediatric hospital medicine.
Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, said Thursday that governments are basing decisions about pandemic restrictions on fears that hospitals are overwhelmed because of COVID-19 patients. Understanding what proportion of patients are hospitalized because of COVID-19, she said, will help determine the exact nature of the influx.
“If a person is in the hospital because they slipped on a banana peel, they’re going to be there regardless of what you do to prevent COVID,” she said.
Of 56 patients admitted to Tufts with COVID-19 on Wednesday, 30 had the disease listed as their primary diagnosis, while 26 had it listed as a secondary diagnosis, Doron said.
Incidental COVID-19 admissions have happened throughout the pandemic, but Doron said it had made sense to include them in the overall count because of personal protective equipment shortages. But increasingly, case numbers are a less important gauge, she said.
“We would want to make sure that any policy decisions, any restrictions on people’s freedoms, for example, take into account the prevention of serious illness, not just positive” tests, she said.
Massachusetts is facing a COVID-19 surge, with the highly infectious Omicron variant now making up 95 percent of cases.
In other news, the Massachusetts Teachers Association on Wednesday called for an agency other than the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to take control of COVID-19 measures in public schools as questions swirl around the masks the state provided to all school employees ahead of reopening.
When the MTA first raised concerns about how effective the KN95 masks were, state officials responded that the masks were a model that had undergone testing coordinated by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab. But on Wednesday, the agency sent an e-mail to superintendents telling them that some of the masks had not, in fact, been tested at MIT.
“[Governor Charlie] Baker and [Education Commissioner Jeffrey] Riley made false statements that put the public at risk even as the omicron variant spread like wildfire and COVID-19 cases soared,” MTA president Merrie Najimy said in a statement. “They either knowingly lied or they demonstrated gross incompetence.”
In a statement to the Globe on Thursday, a DESE spokeswoman touted the agency’s launch of the nation’s first universal COVID screening program for all public and private schools, “which tests thousands of students and teachers each week.”
“Public health experts from around the country, including the CDC, have made it clear that schools are safe environments and it is absolutely crucial that children learn in classrooms. The Baker-Polito Administration believes suggesting otherwise is harmful to students,” Colleen Quinn said.
The state distributed KN95 masks marked “non-medical” to all school employees last week ahead of schools reopening this week after winter break.
On Thursday, Suffolk University announced that the first two weeks of spring semester classes on its Boston campus will be held remotely starting Jan. 18. The campus will be open and fully operating, but in-person classes won’t resume until Jan. 31.
Separately, the Archdiocese of Boston extended its current mask requirements for everyone attending public Masses, including weddings and funerals, until March 3, the day after Ash Wednesday.
Children under the age of 5 are not required to wear masks. All churches must continue to provide a designated area in which social distancing is respected for those who want to use it.
The COVID surge is also testing already understaffed transit authorities across the state that are juggling the shortage of healthy workers with trying to deliver reliable service. On Tuesday, early morning trips on two of the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority’s buses were dropped, with a log listing the reason as “LACK OF MANPOWER.”
So far, the state’s largest transit agency, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, has avoided the large-scale cuts to scheduled service endured by similar agencies in other states due to Omicron.
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said as of Wednesday 54 agency employees have COVID-19 out of a workforce of around 6,300, and 21 of those infected are bus or subway operators.
Next week, the MBTA plans to reopen a testing site at its maintenance facility in Everett that it shuttered in early December because of a lack of demand, Pesaturo said.
Bianca Vázquez Toness, Travis Andersen, Amanda Kaufman, Felice J. Freyer, Priyanka Dayal McCluskey, and Taylor Dolven of the Globe staff contributed to this report.