LOWELL — The second surge of coronavirus infections unfolding across the country is at Lowell General Hospital, where there were 40 inpatients battling the illness as of Wednesday — almost twice as many as the average through the last two months.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in hospitalizations here in Lowell,” said Amy Hoey, vice president and chief operating officer of Lowell General Hospital.
Hoey spoke to Sun editors with LGH and Circle Health President and CEO Jody White, and the hospital’s Medical Director of Infectious Diseases Dr. David Sidebottom.
While both cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, White said Lowell General, as well as hospitals across the state, are far better prepared for the virus than they were in the spring.
“We are in a very different place now,” White said, detailing work with Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration to ensure ample supplies of personal protective equipment, and ample capacity for both hospital beds and intensive care unit beds ahead of an anticipated surge.
And there is also good news on the medical front. Hoey said that despite the surge in hospitalizations, as of Wednesday only five patients at Lowell General were in the ICU, a marked improvement from the spring.
Sidebottom said he believes that is a reflection of the medical community learning more about the virus, and particularly cited efforts to diagnose and attack the virus earlier in the course of infection to help keep patients from getting as severely ill. Sidebottom said those treatment strategies also enable more patients to be treated in an outpatient setting, which relieves stress on the system.
All three officials said the hospital is also far better prepared to expand capacity and services as much as needed as cases continue to mount. Sidebottom said he believes this surge may be less intense but longer lasting than the one in the spring.
“We don’t have a limit to the number of patients we would be able to care for,” Hoey said, when pressed on what the hospital could handle. “We would be able to scale up our resources to meet the demand, just like we did in the spring.”
White said the plans to scale up COVID-19 response also includes doing so while safely avoiding another shutdown of elective procedures, such as the one that rocked hospital finances in the spring, leading to furloughs and cuts. White said he can’t see a scenario where there is another broad-based shutdown.
“Hospital finances are stable, but vulnerable,” White said, adding that most of the workers furloughed earlier this year have been returned to work.
Two differences hospital officials have noticed from the spring is that the average age of hospitalized patients is younger, and very few of the patients are from skilled nursing facilities.
“The average age is 60, which is younger than in the spring,” Hoey said.
Hoey also noted that almost all of the patients now at the hospital came from private residences.
Sidebottom said that trend is also born out by recent contact tracing statewide, which has shown household contacts frequently spreading the virus.
Sidebottom said that while large parties full of young adults that have gotten attention are obviously a problem, so is a less talked about, older demographic that stayed away from favorite restaurants and other nights out for a long time before they started to return.
“They’re just aching to do it again because they haven’t done it in six months,” Sidebottom said.
Asked for his best advice on how people can approach a resurgent virus, Sidebottom emphasized mask wearing.
“Wear a mask — because it’s a public health necessity, wash your hands, and keep your contact circle very small,” the doctor said.
White also cited masks when asked what the biggest lessons learned during the first surge of virus cases was, along with the value of social distancing and measures members of the public can take to support hospital staff. He said responding to the virus “is a team sport.”
“Social distancing is effective, not gathering is effective, and limiting the number of people you gather with greatly limits your exposure to the disease,” White said. “This is what the public can do for us, because we’ve learned lessons that this is very effective.”
Hoey and Sidebottom both said the lessons they learned were taught by the Lowell General staff.
“There was a lot of fear of the unknown in March and April and May and our staff stood with us and faced it down,” Hoey said. “And as we move into the second surge people are tired — tired professionally and personally — and they are rising to the challenge again, so what I have learned is that our staff are just unbelievably resilient.”
Sidebottom said that resilience has applied to the staff’s humanity too. He said the process of facing COVID while patients are isolated has been incredibly difficult for families, prompting nurses and others to do everything they can to maintain communication and “to deliver a measure of humane care.”
“I couldn’t be prouder of the people I work with in that respect,” he said.