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Hospitals digging in for a long winter as coronavirus patients increase

The rise in the number of infected patients is a far cry from the spring surge. Yet it is increasingly apparent among several hospitals in so-called red zones — communities determined by state health officials to have an elevated risk of coronavirus infections.

At Lowell General Hospital, which counted fewer than a handful of COVID-19 patients most days in August, the daily census is now close to three times that, between 11 and 15 patients, said Dr. Adam Weston, an infectious disease physician.

“The good news is we haven’t seen our numbers dramatically climb upward, but there’s the worry that we have ongoing community spread and that could be a harbinger of additional cases,” Weston said.

Lowell is among roughly 30 cities and towns where state officials determined Wednesday infection rates are too high to allow more business and entertainment venue reopenings.

Like a lot of hospitals, Lowell General was suddenly swamped with COVID-19 patients in March and April and had to halt many other medical tests and surgeries to stay ahead of the surge. But that peak subsided fairly rapidly, and hospitals in the summer had mostly returned to normal operations.

Now, Weston said, his hospital and colleagues in the Wellforce system, which includes Tufts Medical Center in Boston and MelroseWakefield Hospital, believe they will be shouldering an elevated plateau of coronavirus patients for months.

“Many are predicting a less tall, but much longer curve, spread out over a longer period of time,” he said.

“The hope and plan is a co-existing of COVID care and regular hospital care,” he said. “But all plans are fine until they get on the battlefield.”

At Southcoast Health, which includes St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, the number of daily COVID-19 cases has nearly doubled in the last two weeks, from 10 to 18. New Bedford is among the red zone communities.

Jackie Somerville, senior vice president and chief nursing officer for Southcoast Hospitals Group, worries that too many residents are letting their guard down after months of reminders to wear masks and socially distance. The weariness comes as schools are reopening and the weather is cooling. With more activities moved inside, the risk of infection increases.

“We are definitely seeing COVID fatigue in all the communities,” Somerville said. “It’s critical more than ever to be meticulous in terms of using [personal protective gear] inside our hospital and also to be ambassadors for Southcoast to role model what vigilance looks like.”

For the first time, Southcoast is now mandating all employees get flu shots, something many other hospitals did several years ago, to protect patients and workers from spreading that virus. Health leaders say flu shots are imperative this year to avoid concurrent outbreaks of influenza and COVID-19 that could overwhelm the state’s health care system.

“We don’t want to see individuals potentially get both because we don’t know what that will look like,” Somerville said.

At UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, there has also been a slow increase of COVID-19