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Virus on rebound, but demand for hospital beds not expected to surge

  • KEROACK

Staff Writer
Published: 4/20/2022 10:43:30 AM
Modified: 4/20/2022 10:42:14 AM

SPRINGFIELD — COVID-19 cases are rising in the region, though the increase has not yet led to an increase in hospitalizations, according to Baystate Health’s president and CEO.

During a press conference Tuesday, Mark Keroack said that despite a surge in cases driven by the highly contagious BA.2 coronavirus subvariant, the region is doing “pretty well” because of high vaccination rates and immunity from previous exposure to the related omicron variant. The Baystate Health system reported 50 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 on Tuesday, though Keroack said half of those were “incidental cases” — people who showed up for other procedures and unexpectedly tested positive.

“There’s a lot of virus out there, but it’s not causing linearly as much serious disease as prior surges,” Keroack said, noting that of those 50 people hospitalized with COVID-19, only one is in the critical care unit.

He said cases have risen from a seven-day average of around 600 statewide last month to 1,500 a day now, though those figures are likely undercounts given the wide availability of at-home rapid tests that rarely get reported to public health officials. By comparison, the state’s seven-day average number of cases at the peak of the omicron variant surge in January was more than 24,000.

But Keroack said case numbers will likely continue to rise after recent religious and school holidays. And he expressed frustration with a federal judge’s decision Monday to strike down a nationwide mask mandate on public transit from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is where politics intrudes on virology and it’s unfortunate,” Keroack said.

He added that he wore a mask on a plane trip to California last week and that if he were taking that same trip next week, he would do the same.

Keroack was speaking during one of his regular question-and-answer sessions with reporters during the pandemic.

Keroack also said Baystate has seen “quite a lot” of long COVID — a wide range of sometimes debilitating symptoms that patients can experience for months or longer after a coronavirus infection, including breathlessness, fatigue, brain fog, a low-grade fever and achiness. He said that as many as 20% of those infected with the coronavirus could suffer from long COVID and that Baystate has put together a team of specialists and has let the community know they’re interested in learning about their long COVID experiences.

“I know that the demand for that clinic has been quite brisk,” he said, with appointments booking out weeks in advance. He did say, however, that “the great majority of people do finally resolve after weeks or months.”

Baystate continues to operate as much as 10% over its licensed bed capacity — “ripple effects of COVID,” Keroack said. That includes continued struggles amid an ongoing behavioral health crisis in the state, where 700 people were waiting in emergency rooms for inpatient mental health beds last week, he said. Of those, 70 were in western Massachusetts, he said.

“In general, looking forward, I really don’t think this particular bump in (COVID) cases is going to amount to anything like the prior surges,” Keroack said.

He did, however, caution people to take even mild symptoms seriously, given the level of coronavirus spreading. “If you do have symptoms, even mild symptoms of respiratory illness … you ought to get yourself checked for both COVID-19 and flu, which is also rising in the community.”

One of the reasons there have been fewer hospitalizations at this stage of the pandemic are newer therapies that now exist, such as the antiviral Paxlovid, which he said can decrease a high-risk patient’s chances of hospitalization by as much as 80%.

After recent CDC guidance that those at higher risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19, including those over 50, could get a second booster shot, Keroack said he’s on the fence about the second booster. He said studies have shown that it does provide increased protection from the virus, but that the protection waned after six to eight weeks. He is hopeful, however, that there is an omicron-variant booster in the future.

“I’m less excited about getting yet another hit of the spike protein that my body has seen three times before,” he said. However, if the vaccine was one “that would broaden my immune base, I’d be interested … if it’s something novel that’s going to broaden my immune activity.”

Overall, Keroack said that he expects that there won’t be such massive waves of infection going forward, given vaccination rates and the fact that so many people were exposed to the virus during the massive omicron surge over the winter.

“We’re not going to see this tsunami of demand for hospital care that we’ve seen over the past two years,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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