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As COVID-19 cases decline, Maryland hospitals see return to normal operations

A 2016 heart surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Maryland hospitals are now seeing a return of non-COVID patients to pre-pandemic levels. (AP File Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A 2016 heart surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Maryland hospitals are now seeing a return of non-COVID patients to pre-pandemic levels. (AP File Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Not only are COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maryland down to nearly the lowest levels of the entire pandemic, but the numbers of non-COVID-19 patients at hospitals are returning to pre-pandemic levels, some hospitals are reporting.  

This shift is significant because many patients were reluctant to visit doctors or hospitals during the pandemic due to fears of contracting the virus, which, in some cases, has led to worsening health outcomes for those patients. 

Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, which has been tracking non-coronavirus hospital patients since April of 2020, said on Jan. 7, around the pandemic’s peak in Maryland, there were 1,885 COVID-19 patients as compared with 5,838 non-COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the state. As of June 2, there were 347 COVID-19 patients and 6,738 non-COVID-19 patients. 

That’s a jump from almost a quarter of all hospital patients in Maryland being COVID-19 patients to fewer than 5.0%. It’s also a 13.4% increase in non-COVID-19 patients. 

(COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped even further in the past week, and are currently at 275). 

“In our Maryland system, unlike any other state in the country, we’ve got a unique financial arrangement where our hospitals don’t actually necessarily want more of any kind of hospital patient. Our real goal is to keep people healthy as much as possible and out of the hospital,” Atlas said. “As this number of non-COVID patients grows, it’s not because hospitals are out there marketing, trying to get more patients. They’re meeting unmet need.” 

The increasing number of non-COVID-19 patients and decreasing number of coronavirus hospitalizations means that hospitals that made big pivots over the past 14 months to accommodate surges can return to more normal operations.  

At the same time, health care systems are remaining vigilant, aware that the fall months could lead to increases in COVID-19 cases, as well as a resurgence of the flu, which caused few hospitalizations this past winter due to coronavirus precautions. 

“The summer is a good time to see declines, I mean, last year, even without the vaccine, we got below 300 in-patients. That’s because people separate themselves (and) go outside. But there are concerns that flu might return in ways that it did not appear last year,” Atlas said. 

These trends have been evident at hospitals that are a part of the University of Maryland Medical System. Across the system, which operates 13 hospitals statewide, some COVID-19 units have been demobilized, but UMMS is still prepared for any possible surges in the future. 

“As we move to less of a COVID burden … there’s less of a need for those levels of PPE or those levels of ventilation,” said David Marcozzi, UMMS’ COVD-19 incident commander. “You go from a hot zone, where there’s an intensity of resources … to a warm posture, where they’re at the ready but we’re not using them. We’re moving more towards a warm posture.” 

MedStar Health, a hospital system with a total of 10 hospitals in Maryland and Washington, hasn’t made any major pivots in response to the recent declines in hospitalizations. The system’s most significant reallocation of resources occurred as far back as spring of 2020, when hospital workers usually deployed to elective procedures who had been asked to work in COVID-19 units were allowed to return to their usual stations. 

But the decline has still been palpable. Terry Fairbanks, MedStar’s vice president of quality and safety as well as an ER doctor, noted that during a recent shift he “didn’t see a single patient that I thought had COVID. That hadn’t happened in a year.” 

Some innovations that were put in place to support hospitals during the pandemic will continue even beyond the end of the health crisis. 

Both MedStar and UMMS worked during the pandemic to increase fluidity within their institutions, for example, developing ways to track which of their hospitals were overcrowded and which were not so that a patient who showed up to a hospital that didn’t have a bed available could be transferred more seamlessly to another within the system. 

At UMMS, the system that coordinates and facilitates these transfers, as well as transfers of employees and equipment to different locations, will not demobilize post-pandemic, but will continue to be used to ensure UMMS can “(match) the right patient to the right bed at the right time,” according to Marcozzi. 

“What we have found is that a lot of the things we’ve put in place to respond to COVID have helped us … for daily delivery of care,” he said.

 

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