News not as bleak as it appears on COVID front

Hospital reporting system due for an overhaul

THE NEWS seems particularly bleak on the COVID front, with case counts rising rapidly and hospitalizations hitting levels not seen since last winter’s surge.

But amid the rising alarm over the Omicron variant, some experts are saying the situation may not be as bad as it appears, particularly at the state’s hospitals. It seems many of the people showing up in hospital COVID counts are actually there for other reasons. 

Jon Santiago, an emergency room doctor at Boston Medical Center and a state representative, tweeted January 3 that his COVID patients generally fall into two categories — those with mild symptoms who are discharged and those who test positive for COVID as they are being admitted for some other illness.

Santiago also said many of his COVID patients were homeless people with mild symptoms or dialysis patients who couldn’t get their dialysis treatment because their centers didn’t want to expose others. 

 “The fact that many patients weren’t primarily admitted for COVID but rather for other medical issues should add nuance to the ‘COVID hospitalization’ numbers,” Santiago said.

Dr. Jarone Lee, an emergency room physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in an interview with Dr. Paul Hattis on Monday that he is seeing a good proportion of patients that are “incidentally COVID positive,” meaning they are asymptomatic from COVID and require hospital admission for something else — like a heart attack or a car accident. Their COVID status turns up when the hospital tests them upon admission.

“At Mass General, the incidentally infected COVID patients account for around 30 to 40 percent of all COVID-infected patients who are hospitalized,” Lee said. “When the state reports the total number of hospitalized people with COVID, currently it includes both those truly sick from COVID as well as those who are incidentally infected.  Thus, the state-reported COVID hospitalization numbers overstate the true burden of the virus in terms of caring for sick COVID patients in our hospitals.”

The state Department of Public Health this week plans to start trying to separate out those hospitalized for COVID and those who have COVID but are being hospitalized for something else.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

House Speaker Ron Mariano said the change should help ease public concerns because the situation is not as bad as the data make it appear. 

“We need to start to differentiate the people who are in the hospital getting treatment because their life is in danger and folks who are just experiencing a variant. And that will go a long way to easing some of the tension that comes about,” he said.