MGH Chief Nurse Sees Cases at the Hospital Leveling off, Perhaps at Plateau

Walking the front lines at Mass General Hospital (MGH) daily, Debbie Burke this week said she is encouraged somewhat that the numbers of new cases of COVID-19 patients there might have plateaued – no better, but also no worse – and she’s also proud of how her Charlestown community has played its part to social distance and be cautious.

Burke, the senior vice president for Patient Care and Chief Nurse at MGH, has been outspoken for some time about the need to take precautions around the Town and to be serious about the threat of spreading the disease so Boston doesn’t become the next New York City. This week, she said there is reason for optimism.

“What we’re seeing is interesting,” she said on Wednesday morning. “We’re calling it a flattening of the cases. What I see is for a number of days we’ve had the same number of patients in the hospital with COVID-19. We still have a lot of people here with COVID-19, but we have a lot of people with COVID risk or are COVID suspected. There’s always a lot of those patients. About half of our patients are in the ICU. It hasn’t gone higher lately, but it’s still a lot of people. Mass General is clearly the highest in the city.”

She said while things are encouraging at the hospital, they are still experiencing heartbreaking circumstances every day with the death of patients, yet are also finding silver linings as some patients successfully come off ventilators.

“What I can say is we’ve seen some success when people were on a ventilator in the ICU and come off and can go home. One was very public on TV, but we’re also seeing death every day.”

All of that translates to behaviors in the neighborhood and making sure people follow the social distancing suggestions – the calls to stay home and not go out.

Burke said wearing a mask is a very good idea to prevent the spread of the disease, particularly for those who have COVID-19 or may be asymptomatic carriers who don’t know they have it. Last month, Burke was very concerned about the lack of caution in the Town, but said things have improved in terms of people being serious and careful.

“I think it’s been a good idea to have people wear a mask because when you go to CVS or Whole Foods you bump into people,” she said. “People have to walk their dogs and do those things. That makes it a good idea to wear a mask. I think what some might forget is by wearing a mask, it’s something that’s more about protecting others…When I think about Charlestown, I would say a lot of people are great at wearing a mask. One area where Charlestown isn’t doing as well is wearing a mask when they’re running.”

Burke said she has seen people running around the Town and many aren’t wearing masks because it is difficult to breathe through the mask – particularly during a run. But, she said, that’s exactly when a mask is important because people are breathing more heavily and can’t always stay six feet from those they pass by.

“I did see someone running over by BHCC and she had a bandana around her neck and as she approached me, she pulled it up over her face and mouth,” said Burke. “That was good…I do understand it’s hard to run with a mask. It’s a different feeling even if you’re used to wearing a mask.”

At this stage in the response, Burke said many are waiting for widespread testing of some sort. There are so many options and it can be confusing, but before everyone can resume social activity, testing will need to be at the forefront.

“There’s blood testing now, and we just heard about a test at home that came out,” she said. “We have to make sure the reliability and specifications of testing is right. It’s probably like the old days of pregnancy testing. Nowadays, you can rely on those tests, but back then you had to really be careful what you were buying.”

That is why Burke is warning residents that getting back to our lives might not be as smooth or quick as expected. She said people need to realize that the summer will be about figuring out a new normal, sacrificing a lot of things that people are used to like Little League and restaurants and large celebrations.

“Everyone is worried about going back to normal activities and what it might mean,” she said. “Everyone worries we’re just going to go back into the summer activities and see another spike in cases. Depending on where you are, it’s all about how you do it carefully, continuing to still do social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. People need to keep that piece up and it will be a challenge.”

She said she has concerns about Little League and other gatherings that people might want to resume as the summer comes on.

“Little League won’t be without parents and coaches,” she said. “We know not many kids get sick with this and those that do have underlying illnesses, but we don’t know if they can be carriers and spread it to adults…There’s no way to do Little League with social distancing. People will be gathering and hanging out and will they keep physical distance? I doubt it. That’s the bigger question. As we go back, how much are we willing to give up this summer?…For myself, there’s no way I’m going to be part of large gatherings.”

As far as those decisions go – how to open and the current course of decision-making within government, Burke said she was proud of the governor and the mayor in taking great measures.

She also said the medical community at Mass General has been incredibly encouraged by the support from the public.

“The public has been amazing,” she said. “We have restaurants sending us lunch and dinner every day and that’s been lovely…We’ve had nurses come back from retirement to help us out. It’s been invaluable. Even when people are afraid, they’re coming into work and doing a phenomenal job. To be honest, it’s great to be a part of it and it’s the most important thing we could be doing right now.”

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