OP-ED: Keep Health Care Workers in Mind, System Strained by More Than COVID

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State Sen. Will Brownsberger

The following piece was provided by State Sen. Will Brownsberger, who represents Watertown, Belmont and parts of Boston:

Please keep our health care workers in mind as you make decisions about what COVID risks to take over the coming weeks.

As of Tuesday, December 14, there were 1411 people hospitalized with COVID in Massachusetts, of which 326 were in the ICU and 176 were intubated. That is well below the level in the first April 2020 surge when hospitalizations peaked at almost 4,000, yet for a combination of reasons, the hospital system is feeling a lot of strain.

Steve Walsh, President of the Massachusetts Hospital Association testified at a hearing on December 16 about the state of the hospital system. He made the following points in his testimony:

  • Like many employers across the country, hospitals are having difficulty recruiting staff — nurses and behavioral health specialists are most in demand, but all hospital jobs are hard to fill.
  • Caregivers are exhausted and burnt out — many are leaving for other fields or retiring.
  • In the early days of COVID, it was possible to recruit travel nurses — acute surges were happening in only a few states. Now, travel nurses are in demand everywhere.
  • Although hospital leaders feel that, to protect patients, all hospital workers should be vaccinated, the loss of some employees due to vaccine mandates has added to the strain.
  • As COVID patients stream into the understaffed hospitals, they are competing with patients who have deferred other kinds of care, many of whom are also very sick.
  • COVID patients are also competing with behavioral health patients. The “epidemic within the pandemic” is mental illness. More are seeking psychiatric care than ever before. People with behavioral healthcare needs appear in emergency rooms and there is no place to send them. These patients “board” in the emergency room — safe, but without access to the care they really need. These behavioral health boarders take up ER beds that could be used by other patients.
  • Statewide, roughly 500 are boarding in emergency rooms on any given day of which 150 to 200 may be children. Staffing shortages are currently preventing the use of several hundred behavioral health beds that already exist — we could solve half the boarding problem if we just could staff those beds.
  • Staffing shortages extend to patient transportation — some patients who would be ready to leave to rehabilitative care cannot access transportation and continue to take up hospital beds.
  • In each region of the state, hospital leaders confer every morning to discuss capacity issues and transfer patients as needed. As capacity tightens, they make decisions to defer optional hospitalizations. If there are patients in acute need and the region is out of capacity, they reach to other regions or out of state.
  • So far, collaboration has assured that all urgent needs are being met, but with “capacity stretched more than it has ever been,” the rising case load due to Delta and Omicron is a cause for real concern, said Mr. Walsh.

Mr. Walsh’s testimony was well-received. The legislature recognizes the health care workforce challenges. In our recent $4.5 billion ARPA spending bill, we devoted $1.15 billion to public health and health care, including substantial investments in building the behavioral health workforce. An additional broad bill dedicated to strengthening the behavioral health system is moving forward.

But nothing we do legislatively can immediately add staff to the system. That means we all have to continue to do what we can to prevent spread of the disease.

The legislature and the Governor are continuing heavy investment in vaccination and testing. The main discussion right now is whether we should strengthen statewide rules on social distancing, especially masking.

I personally favor a statewide indoor mask mandate, applicable to all public spaces. It would take pressure off the many local health agencies who are enforcing mask mandates.

In the absence of mandates, we each strike our own uneasy balance between social distancing and staying connected. The risks of indoor unmasked crowds remain very real and if we elect to take those risks, we may be adding to the burden on health care workers who have already endured too much.

4 thoughts on “OP-ED: Keep Health Care Workers in Mind, System Strained by More Than COVID

  1. A lot of people know that opinions contrary to the government view of Covid are generally not being allowed in mainstream media.

    They wonder why and think it’s political and not a matter of medicine.

    I could post many web links but why bother?

    Some doctors have said they were being told by their hospitals to inflate the number of Covid cases.

    And people killed in motorcycle accidents and shot by guns have been counted as Covid deaths, supposedly by “mistake.”

    Many of us believe that in 2020 the Covid pandemic was exaggerated by Democrats in order to tank the economy and hurt Trump. It worked quite well.

    VP Biden said as a presidential candidate that a president (Trump) who has 200,000 Covid deaths should not be president.

    But now Biden has many more deaths than that and yet NO ONE SAYS ANYTHING.
    Anyone care to comment on that?

    In other words, politics has been injected into the Covid pandemic.

    That’s why people don’t trust the government and the Democrats.

    Who can blame them?

    This is what you get when you play games.

  2. Senator, as you stated, THE LOSS OF SOME EMPLOYEES DUE TO VACCINE MANDATES HAS ADDED TO THE STRAIN. That is one of the key reasons you have lost many health care personnel. They saw first hand some of the results of taking the vaccines with patients coming into the hospital and many of them actually got covid. They are intelligent, well-educated people and it should be their choice on how to protect themselves. To mandate vaccines when people have legitimate religious reasons, health conditions and natural immunities to the virus, good reasons for not taking the shots, is not the American way. In reading many, many articles on this virus, it is pretty clear that having natural immunity to the virus after recovering from it is multiple times more effective than the vaccines. The medical community had enough stress on them, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, because not enough was known about how to treat it and states did not have enough equipment, N95 masks, sanitizing materials, etc. There have also been tons of articles stating that regular cloth masks don’t do anything to stop the virus and people handle them poorly anyway by reusing them and not washing them frequently enough and constantly touching them while they are on their face. Only the N95 masks are effective on the small particles. And to add to the cost of buying them, we charge a sales tax on a wearable item. What’s that all about – more money for the state! By having lockdowns and so many restrictions on children and families, legislators created more economic issues and mental health problems for families. By not authorizing known treatments that worked in other countries, for political reasons and Big Pharma profits, many thousands of people died unnecessarily. This pandemic has been mishandled from the get go and yet you and the rest of the government leaders and none of the mainstream media will admit it. You all changed our medical people from heroes to zeros. No wonder they are leaving their beloved professions. If people don’t feel appreciated, why should they put their lives on the line! Many in Congress are in bed with Big Pharma and that is causing a lot of hospital beds to be filled and understaffed.

  3. Thank you Senator for your continued rational approach to this pandemic. It’s a refreshing change from the ignorance being injected into the conversation. Follow science, not stupidity.

  4. Senator Brownsberger: thank you for including mental health challenges within the list of concerns. It should be noted though that the lack of “beds” for children is not a new problem or a COVID-problem. Even before the pandemic, patients would board in the ER for 30 or more days, sometimes as high as 60 or 70. The shortage of behavioral health professionals as well as the closure of different facilities has only worsened the problem, as more and more children and their caregivers are in desperate need of help.

    Is there a way that you and the legislature can work with the health care industry to reduce the gap between need and availability for the long term? I’m happy to talk more, or refer you to parents who have been through the system repeatedly.

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