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Baystate Health CEO Cites Public Fatigue, Denial In Regional Uptick Of COVID-19 Cases

Baystate Health CEO Mark Keroack.
Baystate Health CEO Mark Keroack.

Massachusetts officials report the rate of COVID-19 infections in the state has been relatively steady in recent days. But the head of Baystate Health Systems says the number of patients admitted to his hospital has increased slightly during the same period.

Dr. Mark Keroack says there’s also been a rise in new cases in towns in western Massachusetts. He’s hoping that’s not the beginning of a trend in the wrong direction.

Dr. Mark Keroack, Baystate Health: One of the things that does worry me is that we continue to see these little brushfires happen when people decide to either not take the guidelines seriously, or just pretend that COVID isn’t there. I’ve called it an epidemic of COVID fatigue, or COVID denial, which I think does run the risk of putting us backwards in terms of the good track record we’ve had so far.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: When we spoke in April, you said there was a lack of testing supplies that had hindered efforts to test more people. You also said you kept in the back of your mind that there were probably 10 times as many real infections out there as were being detected through your testing process.

Five months in, what’s the status of testing? Are you able to test everybody that wants to be tested? Has your estimation of the number of real infections changed in any way?

Well, we are testing a lot more than we were back then. Back then, we were maybe testing 200 or so a day. Now we’re up to testing about 1,000 a day — so, really, a great improvement. And we generally see test positivity rates of about 1% or so.

We’re still struggling with some manufacturers in terms of the rapid turnaround and enough supplies.

There’s one particular manufacturer that offers a test that only takes an hour or two to get a result. And we are somewhat short on them, because they’re getting ready to field the test that allows you to test for COVID, as well as flu, as well as some pediatric viruses at the same time — so it would be an all-in-one kind of test.

Our real workhorse has about an eight- to 10-hour turnaround time, and that sometimes does cause delays.

We’re also looking to expand our testing capabilities — hopefully double or triple it over the next month or two. But we’re still working through some of the details on that.

With respect to the issue of how many real infections are there out there, I think our estimates are roughly the same [as before]. Given the difficulties of testing, and the supply issues, and the fact that most people are only tested with a doctor’s order, it’s a very different situation than if anybody could sort of walk up and get a free COVID test at any time they felt like it.

And so that estimate [that] there really may be 10 times as many infections out there is something that I have no reason to doubt that that’s any different from what I told you back in April.

We’ve had conflicting messages occasionally from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How does it affect your efforts to convince the public to keep up safety protocols in mitigating the virus?

Well, I think it is clearly a headwind. There’s no doubt about it. I think the recent business at the CDC, where you had political types who were filtering the messaging of what has been traditionally a strong, scientifically-based group of experts, was very distressing. And I’m glad that that individual has left the agency.

I think, to our advantage, we’ve had really consistent messaging from the governor’s office, right on down. So state and local officials, and public health officials, have all been very tightly synched up in Massachusetts. And so I think the guidelines, as well as the advice, have been much more consistent, and therefore more consistently followed, in our states than some of the politicization and fighting that’s gone on in other states.

Do you have a timeline as to when we might be able to control, if not eliminate, the spread of the virus?

I think there’s a chance that we might see it to the point where we could stop wearing masks, and stop doing all this social distancing stuff, maybe by next summer or so. I think that the virus is so good at spreading around from person to person that it’s probably going to be around at a low level, you know, for the foreseeable future.

But my hope is that there will be enough people who’ve either been vaccinated or who are immune from natural infection, at that point, that it won’t cause these explosive outbreaks like it’s currently doing — and that we’d be able to rapidly test it, and give appropriate treatments for it.

I think it would really be at a point when we’re seeing relatively few new infections that the governor would say we can pretty much put all those things on the shelf. If I had to bet, I would say, it’s sometime next summer.

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