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With COVID-19 Surging at Baystate, Dr. Mark Keroack Encourages Vaccination

SPRINGFIELD — Despite having just 5.5% of the state’s hospital inpatient beds, Baystate Health’s four hospitals housed 18% of all inpatient COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts on Wednesday — and system President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack is calling on the community to do its part, through vaccination and other measures, to help slow a recent surge in cases in Western Mass., mostly driven by the Delta variant.

“Baystate Health has really been hit unusually hard by the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. We went from four cases on the first of July to, last weekend, having over 100 cases,” Keroack said at a virtual news conference on Thursday. “The last couple of days, things have gotten down into the 90s, and we hope that’s a good trend, but we’re really not sure.”

Most of those cases are at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, and 13 are critical-care cases. About 75% of all hospitalized COVID patients in the Baystate system are unvaccinated individuals; vaccinated cases are typically older people or those with chronic conditions. In any case, he said, COVID cases among the vaccinated are typically milder and lead to shorter hospitalizations.

Part of the local surge, Keroack said, can be attributed to Hampden County’s 52% full-vaccination rate, lowest among the Commonwealth’s 14 counties; the statewide figure is 67%.

For that reason, he has been reaching out to boards of health, civic leaders, business owners, and event organizers to encourage employees and clients to get vaccinated, as well as encouraging masking and social distancing, to reduce the number of cases and the burden on hospitals.

“We are appealing to the community to help us,” Keroack said, noting that Baystate’s hospital beds, especially at Baystate Medical Center, are at or near capacity, and COVID patients often have to wait for beds to open up. “Everybody in the community has a role to try to mitigate the effects of this crisis and to help us be there for everybody who needs us, for COVID or non-COVID care.”

Another problem has been a “reduction in discharge efficiency” because many nursing homes have been closed to new admissions or struggling with staffing, he said. In addition, Baystate has its own workforce issues; of the system’s roughly 12,000 jobs, about 1,400 are currently vacant.

“We filled some with contract workers, but those are hard to find with the intense competition,” he added, noting that the system has adjusted salaries and benefits and offered hiring or retention bonuses as well.

Baystate Health is also implementing a vaccine mandate for all employees, from frontline care providers to back-office workers. Currently, vaccination rates in the system top 85%, but just over 1,600 have yet to be vaccinated. Some have been granted medical or religious exemptions, Keroack noted.

He argued that the best way to blunt the effects of the pandemic is to reduce the spread, and sees vaccination as the best way to do that, as well as taking precautions when gathering, especially indoors.

“It really is unfortunate to see some of the preventable pain and suffering, not to mention expense, that happens when people who have decided to put off the vaccine end up getting sick,” he said. “So we are asking the community to help us reduce the burden of this disease in the communuity and try to get Hampden County closer to where the rest of the state is.”

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