Worcester hit with record-high COVID cases; city resources, hospitals stretched thin

·5 min read
Worcester Mayor Joseph M. Petty speaks during a COVID-19 press briefing Wednesday at City Hall.
Worcester Mayor Joseph M. Petty speaks during a COVID-19 press briefing Wednesday at City Hall.

WORCESTER — Wednesday marked a grim record in the city's ongoing battle with COVID-19.

With 3,513 new cases since last week's press conference, the city is shattering records for transmission.

Wednesday also saw the highest day-over-day increase in COVID cases yet at 1,094, putting the seven-day average at over 501 cases a day, doubling since last week's press conference and a new record.

Worcester has recorded 38,342 cases since the start of the pandemic. The city also added three additional deaths from COVID since last week, for a total of 478.

City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said test numbers also do not count positive results from at-home testing kits.

The mood was somber during Wednesday afternoon's press conference, as Mayor Joseph M. Petty, Augustus and city Medical Director Dr. Michael Hirsh discussed how record transmission has strained both the city's medical systems and public resources.

Petty announced that 22 combined deaths were reported over the past week at UMass Memorial Medical Center and St. Vincent Hospital. The mayor and Augustus used the figure to underscore that people continue to still be dying of COVID-19, even if most cases of the omicron variant are milder than previous variants.

City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. speaks to the media during a COVID-19 press briefing Wednesday at City Hall.
City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. speaks to the media during a COVID-19 press briefing Wednesday at City Hall.

"So many people just cavalierly seem to dismiss this as just the flu — you'll get it, you won't be too sick. But for those 22 people and their families, this couldn't be more real," Augustus said. "This is way more than just the flu."

Augustus said 258 are hospitalized at UMass Memorial Health and St. Vincent Hospital, up 85 since last week, and 57 are ICU patients. Augustus said he expects the hospitals to feel more stress as cases continue their steep rise, especially as hospital workers test positive.

With hospital workers being exhausted with the rise in cases, Augustus urged residents to help workers out by continuing to adhere to COVID safety protocols to reduce spread and getting their vaccines and flu shots.

Shrewsbury has seen an increase in 519 cases since last week, for a total of 5,158 and Grafton added 229 cases, for a total of 2,247

While the percent of the city that is fully vaccinated has ticked up to 59%, Augustus acknowledged that Worcester is still behind the state average. About 69% of the city has received at least one dose of a vaccine and 18% have received their booster. Just under 85% of city employees and 73% of school employees are fully vaccinated, Augustus said.

Frustration with long lines at testing center

Petty and Augustus acknowledged frustration with long lines at the testing facility at the Mercantile Center.

While Augustus said the Mercantile Center testing facility now has an extra day for testing, he said the limited number of staffing that UMass Memorial Health is facing with the surge in cases has placed limits on expanding hours or reducing wait times.

"We've talked to UMass, we talked to the state; doing anything we can to try to expand the access to testing," Augustus said. "But because of the overwhelming numbers in the hospital, because of the health care workers and other staff who are out with COVID or who are awaiting test results themselves, it is hard to expand the testing capacity."

The testing site will be open from Monday through Thursday for tests next week. On Friday, the site will have vaccines available from noon to 3 p.m.

Around 240 city employees not working

The city is managing 124 positive cases among staff and 116 out of work pending test results, meaning around 240 city employees are not working. The fire department has been particularly hit with breakthrough cases, Augustus said.

With firefighters having to share close quarters for 24-hour shifts, Augustus said that they are unable to distance. Augustus said the fire department was not far from "brownout" levels where cases may impact service.

"You want your fire department to answer the call and be there in a timely way, so the case that you may be cavalierly passing onto someone else might come back to you if we can't (get) a police officer or firefighter to you in a timely way," Augustus said.

About 110 firefighters are not on duty, Augustus said.

Health services, hospitals under great pressure

After congratulating Petty on his inauguration for a historic sixth term as mayor, Hirsh said the inauguration was the only good news he had heard this week. He said that area health services and hospitals are feeling great pressure to address the surge with increasingly limited staffing and resources.

"Medical centers and the community health centers who I checked in with today, we all have the same feeling of dread that this was trying to fight off a tsunami with a tin cup," Hirsh said.

City Medical Director Dr. Michael P. Hirsh answers a question during a COVID-19 press briefing at City Hall on Wednesday.
City Medical Director Dr. Michael P. Hirsh answers a question during a COVID-19 press briefing at City Hall on Wednesday.

While medical centers are being stretched thin, Hirsh said it was a positive sign that the city is beginning to see renewed signs of increased demand for vaccines.

N95 or KN95 masks effective

Hirsh also urged residents to start wearing N95 or KN95 masks, saying that cloth masks and homemade masks have not proved effective for the omicron variant.

Research from the United Kingdom indicated that omicron does not impact the lower lungs and sits more in the upper airways, reducing the risk of pneumonia and chest pain, Hirsh said.

However, a more virulent variant will infect enough people that a significant portion will still become gravely sick, Hirsh said.

Petty said that Worcester schools are at about 80% attendance with 265 staff members out with COVID and 722 students out.

According to state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education standards, attendance hitting 50% attendance would be the point an individual school would be in critical condition for operations.

UMass Memorial Health will also be rolling back visitations starting Wednesday, Petty said. Augustus said that hospitals filling up and staff testing positive could lead to delays in other medical services.

Last week, Augustus announced a new executive order mandating boosters or testing by Feb. 1 for city employees when they become eligible for a booster.

Augustus said the reaction to the new order appears to be positive, with several city employees making use of vaccination clinics.

The City Council, School Committee and subcommittees will be going to all-remote meetings through January.

Along with the 25% capacity restriction announced for city buildings last week, Augustus said that citizens will need to schedule meetings for matters of city resources.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Worcester hit with record-high COVID-19 cases

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