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December 29, 2020

In face of post-Christmas COVID surge, Central Mass. hospital bed capacity shrinking

Photo | Grant Welker The DCU Center field hospital in Worcester has more than 200 beds for coronavirus patients.

If public health officials are correct and a post-Christmas coronavirus surge brings COVID-19 case numbers ever higher, Central Massachusetts will begin with a few hundred available hospital beds, a shrinking but still-high rate compared to many other regions.

Even as case and hospitalization numbers have risen since before Thanksgiving, bed capacity in Central Massachusetts is not nearly as tight as in other parts of the country, where headlines have told narrowing tails of a lack of available space for patients, particularly in rural areas.

As of Monday, 63% of Central Massachusetts' roughly 250 intensive care beds were filled, as were 80% of the remaining 1,000-plus hospital beds, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. That compares to 50% and 67%, respectively, a month prior, when virus cases were lower.

Image | WBJ Source: Massachusetts Department of Public Health

Central Massachusetts didn't come close to reaching its regional bed capacity in the spring, thanks in large part to a field hospital at Worcester's DCU Center, which provided up to roughly 200 beds for less severe patients. The facility never needed nearly that much space then, and as of Dec. 24 according to the city, only roughly 30 patients had filled the facility's space, which has been set up a second time for the latest surge.

In late April, when Massachusetts hospitalizations hit their peak, Central Massachusetts was at 50% of its capacity, according to DPH data. That compared to a 45% capacity statewide, a rate that was likewise helped in large part by field hospitals, as well as acute-care hospitals delaying many elective procedures.

[Related: Greater Worcester COVID tally far worse than spring, but no longer among nation's worst]

Hospitalizations across Massachusetts are just over half of what they were in the spring, despite hospitalizations nationally more than doubling in the same time period, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

In December, as national cases have hit all-time highs, ICU bed capacity in some parts of the country have reached much more critical levels. A New York Times analysis of federal health data published Dec. 9 showed ICU space to be completely full in mostly rural parts of the South, Midwest and Southwest. About one in 10 people live in areas where ICU beds are either completely full or fewer than 5% of beds are available, the Times said.

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