As he has done for several days now, Gov. Baker used part of his daily press conference today to urge people with non-Covid-19 health issues to call their doctors or 911. But this time, he was joined by executives at three hospitals, who reported many people are trying to wait out symptoms at home, which means they eventually come into the hospital far sicker - and sometimes beyond help.
"We've seen children coming to the hospital after having several days of abdominal pain, coming with a ruptured appendix," Dr. Michael Apkon, CEO of Tufts Medical Center, said. "We've seen patients with symptoms of stroke staying at home long beyond the point at which medications that would markedly improve their outcome could safely be delivered." And Tufts has had patients with kidney disease stay at home so long that by the time they finally show up at the hospital, it's too late to save them, he said.
Six Boston hospitals have produced PSAs that will begin airing on local TV stations that urge people with non-Covid health issues - chest pain, symptoms of stroke and prolonged abdominal pain - as well as victims of physical trauma and domestic abuse to call their doctors or 911, that hospitals have plenty of beds for them and that, as Apkon said, "we are keeping you safe at the hospital."
Officials said hospitals are doing everything they can to keep the virus from spreading - patients with the virus are placed in separate units, all healthcare workers wear masks and other protective gear, surfaces and gear are constantly sanitized, patients in waiting rooms are made to sit at least six feet apart.
Baker, as he now does every day, emphasized that part of the planning by state and hospital officials to expand hospital capacity over the past couple of months was to ensure that people with non-coronavirus health issues could continue to get care. He said that more than half of the roughly 18,000 hospital beds now available in Massachusetts are empty, and that that shows both that the planning worked, that even as Covid-19 bed use has increased - statewide, there were 3,977 people hospitalized for Covid-19 symptoms yesterday, up 100 from the day before - there is plenty of room for patients with other issues.
"We don't want people getting sicker or exacerbating an injury," Baker, a former HMO CEO, said.
Dr. Gregg Meyer, the chief clinical officer at Partners Healthcare and the interim president at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, said emergency-room visits at the hospital have dropped from 5,400 in January to 2,800 over the past 31 days - with half of those being Covid-19 patients. While some of the decrease is due to fewer car crashes as people drive less, many are people simply staying home. He said the hospital's stroke census has dropped from an average of 20 a month to just 7 so far this month. He said that within the whole Patients system - which includes Mass. General and Brigham and Women's - visits for heart attacks have dropped 37%; visits for appendicitis 14%.
But one thing that's up, he continued, is leg amputations - patients with leg ulcers and vascular problems are waiting too long to seek medical attention and by the time they do show up, their conditions have become so advanced the only way to save their lives is to amputate their leg.
Like Baker and Meyer, he urged people to call their doctors before things get too bad.
"Massachusetts hospitals are open for business," he said. "We have the beds, we have physicians, we have the nurses, we have the specialists, we have the resources to treat you."
Nancy Shendell-Falik, president of Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, said her hospital has seen similar decreases in patient numbers. She said one particular problem has been that parents of children with diabetes are waiting too long to seek medical care when their children develop new symptoms, in some case so long that when they finally do get to the hospital, their children have developed new permanent problems.