As the Omicron variant spreads through one of the least vaccinated corners of Massachusetts, Southcoast Health, which manages three of the region’s hospitals, reports it is treating its largest volume of COVID-19 patients in serious condition since the pandemic began. 

Only 3 percent of the COVID-19 patients hospitalized systemwide have received the full set of vaccinations with the booster, according to data published by Southcoast Health. The hospital network reports its largest share of patients is coming from New Bedford, a city where the vaccination rate lags far behind the state average. Just 18 percent of the city's residents are fully vaccinated with a booster shot, compared to 46 percent statewide.

Compounding the crush in patients at local hospitals is a serious shortage of nurses. The staff across the Southcoast system is shrinking as the pandemic grinds on into its second year, with nurses in particular leaving at a rate faster than hospitals can replace them.

On several days this month, that grueling combination pushed intensive care units to their full capacity, forcing healthcare workers to treat newly arriving patients in the hallways and waiting rooms of the emergency department. 

“There are days when I've walked through where we have gurneys back to back against the walls, and of course every alcove,” said Dr. Dani Hackner, Southcoast Health’s physician-in-chief. 

Deb Falk, a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, said the emergency department where she’s worked for 37 years is more chaotic today than it’s ever been before. 

“It's not safe because you have a mix of psychiatric patients, medical patients, and sometimes we have a line of ambulance stretchers with patients waiting to have a room,” Falk said. “There's no place to put them.”

Falk said staffing shortages have pushed healthcare workers to new levels of exhaustion, even relative to the rest of the pandemic. She said nurses are sometimes mandated to take on 16-hour shifts, where breaks to eat a meal can last as little as 5 minutes.

“People are quitting,” Falk said, “but the main thing is people are just exhausted. I've had nurses tell me they feel hollow inside, like there's nothing left.”

Joe Markman, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said there are 150 unfilled nursing positions at St. Luke’s, which employs slightly under 700 nurses. At Tobey Hospital in Wareham, the shortage is just as severe: the union reports one in five nursing positions is unfilled. 

Southcoast Health has turned to the National Guard for help transporting and monitoring patients at Tobey, St. Luke’s and Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River. For the time being, most visitors are suspended from seeing friends or relatives in the hospital. 

There is at least one sign of hope on the horizon though. A regional wastewater treatment plant near Boston tests the amount of Covid in the sewage passing through three times per week. Hackner said the latest data reported by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority suggests the state is past its peak in infections. 

Hackner said that means Southcoast’s record-breaking bottleneck of Covid patients could start to ease up soon. 

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenBerke6.