News not as bleak as it appears on COVID front

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. 

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.

 BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Code on your phone: The Baker administration rolled out a website where Massachusetts residents can download to their phone a QR code that they can use to prove their vaccination status. Baker said the system is not part of any new statewide mandate, but he said it should make it easier for residents to comply with local requirements. “We want to make this available for people so that they have it and can use it and make their lives easier and less complicated,” he said. Read more.

Vaccine required: House Speaker Ron Mariano indicated lawmakers will likely require members of the public to show proof of vaccination if and when the State House reopens. The State House has been closed to the public for nearly two years. Read more.

Incidentally infected: Dr. Jarone Lee of Massachusetts General Hospital tells Paul Hattis of the Lown Institute that 30 to 40 percent of ER patients at the hospital are “incidentally infected” and require far less hospitalization and ICU care. Read more.

OPINION

Crunch time on voting reforms: Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, says it’s time for the Legislature to pass voting reforms. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

The state provided millions of dollars of grants to companies to manufacture face masks but isn’t buying masks now. (GBH)

A legislative hearing today will take up bills that would allow municipalities to impose forms of rent control, which was banned statewide in a 1994 ballot question. (Boston Herald

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Haverhill plans to give a $500 stipend to all vaccinated employees, as an incentive to get the COVID shots. (Eagle-Tribune)

Shana Cottone, the Boston police sergeant placed on administrative leave amid an internal affairs investigation, said the Wu administration is retaliating against her because of her outspoken opposition to the city’s ratcheted up vaccine mandate for municipal employees. (Boston Herald) Cottone has a mixed work history that includes multiple internal affairs complaints against her that were sustained as well as a record of acts of heroism. (Boston Globe

The municipal employees union in Marblehead draws attention to a trash transfer station that is in disrepair. (Daily Item)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Federal officials are expected to rule this week on whether Medicare will cover Aduhelm, the controversy-plagued new Alzheimer’s drug developed by Cambridge-based Biogen. (Boston Globe) Here’s a deep dive on the controversy over the drug, which was approved by the FDA over the objections of a panel of outside experts. (CommonWealth)

Massachusetts is one of 41 states testing for COVID-19 in the deer population. (WBUR)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

President Biden plans to deliver a hard-hitting speech today calling for new voting rights legislation, but such a measure faces a rocky road so he could be setting himself up for another legislative defeat. (Washington Post

ELECTIONS

Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, a Democrat who was just reelected in November, says he intends to challenge Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, a Republican firebrand, this November. (Sun Chronicle)

Methuen City Councilor James McCarty plans to run for the House seat representing the 4th Essex District. (Eagle-Tribune)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Business confidence in Massachusetts drops to a 10-month low, according to a new AIM survey. (Gloucester Daily Times)

The MassMutual Center in Springfield is still doing good business, with conventions and other events booked for the coming months, despite the COVID surge. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

The state education department extends the indoor mask mandate for schools through February. 28. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu says the city could pivot to remote learning despite state officials’ declaration that such instruction won’t count toward the mandated 180 days of schooling required by state law. (Boston Globe

School districts including Boston (Boston Globe), Worcester (Telegram & Gazette), and Springfield, among others (MassLive) close Tuesday due to extreme cold.

The Braintree School Committee postpones consideration of most of its agenda after two School Committee members show up in person without masks. (Patriot Ledger)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A watchdog group says water quality on Cape Cod continues to decline. (Cape Cod Times)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The family of Orlando Taylor, a 23-year-old man shot by the Springfield police, disputes the police account of what occurred and says the police did not need to shoot Taylor, who has mental illness. (MassLive)

A group of Black and Latino current or recent inmates have filed suit against state officials alleging that they engaged in retaliatory violence against prisoners at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. (Boston Globe

The lawyer fighting the state’s use of alcohol breath tests says the state-run Office of Alcohol Testing bungled another disclosure in ongoing litigation over the use of the tests. (MassLive)