Western Massachusetts Hospitals Prepare for COVID-19 Cases

Mar 7, 2020

Updated at 4:27 p.m.

As of Saturday, Massachusetts officials say there are 13 confirmed or presumed cases of COVID-19 in the state – including the first from western Mass. The state's public health department confirmed a man from Berkshire County was among the newest cases.

Hospitals around western Massachusetts said Friday they are busy preparing – and flagging potential weak spots in their ability to respond.

"We're unable to predict...how many resources we'll need"

Among the concerns is keeping up with medical supplies. Hospital leaders said they have enough masks, gloves and respirators — for now.

“We're unable to predict at this point exactly how many resources we'll need from a supply or equipment perspective,” said Robert Roose, medical director of Mercy Medical Center in Springfield. “And so what may seem adequate now could could soon become something that is much more challenging.”

Roose said he hopes Congress can put resources into manufacturing and distributing more medical supplies.

Disease specialists do not recommend masks for the general public — especially since it appears the virus is not transmitted through the air, but rather by large droplets that usually transmit on shared surfaces. That’s why hand washing is effective.

Hospitals emphasized it's important masks remain available for health care workers and those who are already sick or caring for someone is a sick.

Two hospitals noticed visitors stealing entire boxes of surgical masks from the waiting room — and Baystate Health has started to limit visitors, partly for that reason.

"Anxious to begin testing locally"

Hospital leaders said they are ramping up the screening of patients through questionnaires, but they are urging the federal government to make coronavirus testing kits more available. Currently, any suspected case has to be sent out to the state public health department or a federal lab.

Baystate Health CEO Mark Keroack said his hospitals had only tested a handful of suspected cases as of Friday — all negative.

“We're very anxious to begin testing locally at the hospital ourselves,” Keroack said, “so that we could get a quick turnaround and give people quick answers rather than wait a few days...for tests to come back.”

Looking ahead, hospitals are planning for potential workforce shortages, should doctors and other medical staff get quarantined or show symptoms of the virus.

A message to Washington

Congressman Richard Neal met with the hospital representatives in Springfield on Friday. He said he'll bring up their concerns to his staff in Washington, as the government prepares to spend an $8.3 billion package aimed at virus containment.

Hospital leaders also want Congress to appropriate more money for public education, so people get accurate information on the virus and know the best steps to take.

For instance, they recommend people first call their primary care doctor for a phone screening rather than go to the emergency room. They urge people not to come to the hospital if they don't have severe symptoms. And they want doctors to alert hospital staff if a suspected virus patient is coming in, so they can immediately isolate them from other patients.

A number of hospital officials around western Massachusetts are meeting Monday to discuss how to coordinate care should coranavirus cases significantly increase.

“We have a multi-disciplinary team that is ready to respond to any surge of any potential outbreak,” Roose said. “And as a coalition of hospitals, we are getting together to ensure that our local communities are able to respond accordingly.”

Emma Rubin contributed to this report.