BOSTON — State officials are taking steps to shore up the health care system as hospitals battle staff shortages amid a new surge in COVID-19 infections.
Infections have been rising in recent weeks amid the highly contagious delta variant, despite the state’s highest-in-the-nation vaccination rate. More than 2 million eligible Massachusetts residents have not been vaccinated and immunity is waning for fully vaccinated people who have not yet had their booster shots.
Meanwhile, hospitals are wrestling with chronic staffing shortages that have translated into the loss of more than 500 intensive care unit beds across the state.
On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker took steps to ease health care capacity issues by signing an emergency order requiring hospitals with limited acute care capacity to start reducing elective procedures beginning next week.
Under the new guidance, hospitals are required to keep at least 15% of their medical and surgical and intensive care unit beds available for COVID patients.
Hospitals that do not meet or exceed the capacity threshold will be required to “reduce non-essential, non-urgent scheduled procedures performed on a daily basis by at least 30%, as compared to the hospital or hospital system’s 2019 average daily procedure volume.”
The state Department of Public Health lists those scheduled procedures as not being medical emergencies.
Hospital leaders say the goal is to protect patients and health care workers while ensuring capacity to deal with an anticipated surge of COVID hospitalizations.
“Our health care system and state leaders have done heroic work to mitigate this public health crisis over the past 20 months,” Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said in a statement.
“But we are now seeing significant strain on hospital capacity due largely to workforce shortages and an influx of non-COVID-19 patients who deferred care and now need complex medical care,” he continued.
Dr. Kevin Tabb of Beth Israel Lahey Health said many hospitals are seeing an influx of patients who postponed surgical procedures because of the pandemic.
“Although COVID-related hospitalizations are far from what they were at their peak, we are now caring for an unusually high number of patients with other health problems,” he said.
The number of new daily cases of COVID-19 increased by more than 2,600 on Tuesday, while newly confirmed virus deaths in Massachusetts rose by 24.
There were nearly 740 people reported hospitalized Tuesday with COVID-19 infections, with about 150 in intensive care units.
Nationally, more than 30 states including Massachusetts have reported a rise in infections and hospitalizations from the virus.
Health officials say a majority of infections and severe hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated.
“That’s worrisome because this remains a dangerous disease,” said Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease expert and professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health and School of Medicine. “It underscores the need for people who haven’t been vaccinated yet to get their shots.”
Hamer said there has been a “significant spike” in traces of COVID-19 detected in wastewater tests compiled by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
Data from the wastewater sampling often predicts trends of COVID-19 several weeks in advance.
“It’s been bouncing around for a few months but now we’re on a real upward swing,” he said. “That’s a major concern.”
Hamer said there is concern about a spike of infections over Thanksgiving and other holidays due to the colder weather and people congregating indoors.
Last year, the nation saw its most significant spread of the pandemic in the two weeks following Thanksgiving, with nearly 17 million infections and more than 220,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The timing is really bad for us to be seeing a rise in cases with the holidays and some of the biggest travel days approaching,” Hamer said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.