NEW BEDFORD — Just one month after the state first announced the presence of the highly contagious omicron variant, about 40 city police and fire department staff are out of work due to COVID-19, local emergency rooms are operating with limited beds and longer wait times, and city paramedics are responding to a record volume of 911 calls.

“It’s a disaster to be honest,” said Mike Thomas, deputy director of New Bedford Emergency Medical Services, which operates five ambulances throughout the city. “There are so many calls; it’s unbelievable how busy it is … it’s every single day for the last month. It’s non-stop.”

While data suggest that omicron causes less severe illness than other coronavirus variants, its continued spread following the holidays is overwhelming health care services.

Thomas said now is the busiest that EMS has been during the pandemic and it’s “definitely worse” regarding call volume. In December of 2020, city EMS (which has 57 full-time and part-time employees), responded to 1,625 calls. One year later, it was 1,948 calls.

Thomas couldn’t speak to the vaccination status of the COVID-positive patients they treat, but he noted they are both old and young, with some patients in their 20s and 30s. 

Ralph Isherwood, a paramedic and supervisor at New Bedford EMS, said he is seeing more unvaccinated patients. Another paramedic, David Gordon, said he sees a mix of both unvaccinated and vaccinated patients with confirmed COVID-19 cases.  

Even though they are not severely ill and may only have mild symptoms, some residents are calling 911 just because they are testing positive for COVID-19, the city paramedics said, which is adding pressure to the already overworked EMS staff. 

EMS crews cannot deny transport to patients if they want to go to the hospital, but when they arrive, crews are facing wait times of 30 to 60 minutes because beds are not immediately available for patients, Thomas and Gordon said. Under normal circumstances, the wait can be from one minute to 15 minutes. 

Isherwood said two of his calls on Tuesday resulted in about an hour wait for each patient to get a stretcher at St. Luke’s Hospital. This delay causes a backup in service (the crews cannot leave until the patient is triaged and has a bed) and has led the city’s EMS to rely more heavily on mutual aid from surrounding towns. 

“It doesn’t matter if you go to Fall River, St. Anne’s, Charlton, Brockton — they’re all very busy and they don’t have the space; they don’t have the beds,” Thomas said. 

Amid this pressure, Southcoast Health has delayed all non-urgent, elective procedures, according to spokesperson Bethany Fernandes.

The hospital system saw a peak number of COVID hospitalizations last January with 153 patients. As of the morning of Jan. 4, Southcoast Health had 147 COVID patients, and between late December and early January, the system had seen as many as 28 COVID hospitalizations in a day.

According to data provided by Fernandes, only 1% of the system’s hospitalized COVID patients are vaccinated and boosted, while 28% are vaccinated, meaning the majority of current COVID patients are unvaccinated.

In the intensive care unit, the hospital system has not yet reached its peak, also set last January with 28 patients. Zero percent of patients in the ICU for coronavirus are vaccinated and boosted, while 22% are vaccinated.

Hospitals seeing younger COVID patients

Most current COVID patients at Southcoast Health are between 25 to 35 years old, followed by 45 to 55, then 15 to 25, and then 55 to 65. The system is also seeing a record number of pediatric COVID-19 cases. 

Those 65 years and older currently make up the smallest percentage of COVID patients at the hospital. One year ago, people ages 55 to 65 represented the majority of COVID patients there, followed by people ages 25 to 35.  

As omicron further stresses hospitals, the Massachusetts College of Emergency Physicians and Massachusetts Emergency Nurses Association on Tuesday issued a joint statement, in which they said they are “overwhelmed” and that emergency departments are at a “breaking point.”

“Our Emergency Departments are at critical capacity and things will get worse,” the statement said. “In the coming days and weeks, we will see more nurses, doctors, and support staff become infected and stay home to isolate and get well. This situation will challenge our Emergency Departments and hospitals even more.” 

Gordon, who has been a paramedic for many years, said he has never seen so many patients in the emergency department at St. Luke’s Hospital.

Nearly 500 National Guard troops have been deployed to help overwhelmed hospitals across the state, including 20 personnel at Southcoast Health hospitals, according to a Facebook post from the hospital system. The troops will provide non-clinical support through security and patient transport.

Fernandes said Southcoast Health is currently experiencing staffing shortages. Asked how many staff called out sick in the past two weeks due to illness from COVID-19, she said “we cannot provide this number.” 

She said the hospitals are voluntarily redeploying staff as needed and using temporary contract workers. Additionally, some staff have been volunteering to take open shifts.

The hospital system is also using incentives — be it sign-on bonuses, rewards for employee referrals, or a bonus program for nurses who cover extra shifts — to respond to staffing issues. 

The emergency physicians and nurses organizations noted that they do not want people to ignore symptoms or avoid emergency care, but asked that people not use emergency rooms for COVID-19 testing or mild symptoms. 

“Doing so is overwhelming our departments and staff and diverting our focus away from those who need us most,” the organizations said. They promoted getting vaccinated (and boosted), along with wearing masks and following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

EMS Director Thomas echoed some of their sentiment, stating EMS is always there for medical emergencies, but that if people test positive and may only have mild symptoms, they should monitor them for a few days and see how they feel. There is also the option of driving to the emergency room instead of calling 911.

Data show increasing cases

The total two-week case count for New Bedford was 1,500 from mid-December through Christmas, according to the most recent data from the state. The average daily rate for the city in that period was about 107 cases per 100,000 people, while 12.4% of tests were positive — slightly higher than 11.35% for Bristol County. 

Researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard determined that as of mid-December, omicron had become the dominant variant in the state. 

In New Bedford, about 7% of cases sequenced so far were identified as the omicron variant, according to a statement from the city’s Health Department. But only a fraction of COVID-19 cases are sequenced, and results take two to three weeks to process, so there is a lag in accurately determining omicron’s presence. 

Fernandes said that if this year’s post-holiday surge is similar to last year’s, then Southcoast Health anticipates a peak over the coming weeks, with the surge continuing into the early spring.

Email Anastasia Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org.

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