'The pandemic we were afraid of in 2020': Some patients dying because Massachusetts hospitals at capacity

As Massachusetts hospitals struggle amid the current omicron surge, multiple reports have emerged of patients dying because they couldn't be transferred to higher-level care, NPR reported Jan. 18. 

Amid record surges in COVID-19 patients, hospitals statewide are nearing or at capacity, and lifesaving transfers are becoming difficult to arrange.  

Rona Tsantinis-Roy recalled her father's 10-day COVID-19 battle at Southbridge, Mass.-based Harrington Hospital, as reported by NPR's WBUR-FM. On the fourth day, Ms. Tsantinis-Roy was told her 68-year-old father, Tony Tsantinis, needed an intensive care bed, but Harrington's ICU was full. The hospital called 17 hospitals, and nobody was able to take him, Ms. Tsantinis-Roy told WBUR-FM. An ICU bed opened up at Harrington within a few days, but by then Mr. Tsantinis' kidneys were failing and the hospital couldn't provide dialysis. Mr. Tsantinis died from COVID-19 complications in December.

Harrington Hospital, part of UMass Memorial Health, has declined to discuss the details of Mr. Tsantinis' case with NPR, but UMass Memorial Health President and CEO Eric Dickson, MD, said there are problems at every level of care right now.

"I think everybody wants to believe that the system is holding up just fine, but it isn't. It's breaking down," Dr. Dickinson said. "And when it breaks down, patients are harmed."

Some say the state should enact so-called crisis standards of care, but Dr. Dickson said asking hospitals to determine who will get a bed and who won't would be extremely difficult. However, he noted that care is already being rationed at some level because hospitals don't have the bed capacity to care for the number of patients coming in with COVID-19.

Under orders from Gov. Charlie Baker, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on Jan. 14 released several emergency orders to ease strain on the state's healthcare system, including allowing qualified physician assistants to practice independently. 

"Dramatically, we're hearing stories of 30 phone calls trying to get patients even out of state to get the care that they need," said Kathleen Kerrigan, MD, president of the Massachusetts College of Emergency Physicians. "This was the pandemic we were afraid of when the governor shut down the state back in March of 2020."


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