Surging COVID-19 cases across Vermont and in the Northeast Kingdom have local hospital officials on alert.
Vermont has seen a record-shattering number of cases in the last week and while the Northeast Kingdom has not yet experienced the same dramatic rise as other parts of the state, the impact of rising cases is still being felt.
Hospitals report that while they have not seen more patients sick with COVID, they are still at a critical juncture, most notably because of staffing concerns.
At Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital as of Monday there were 4 COVID patients in the ICU and an additional 2 hospitalized patients. “Our ICU is full with COVID,” said Michael Rousse, Chief Medical Officer at NVRH, citing the 6 total patients. “This is not outlandish for us. We’ve had as many as 8. We are ok on that front, our hospital is not completely full, which is good.”
Rousse said NVRH has a couple of open beds and while they are running at high capacity they are not stretched beyond the limit.
Another encouraging sign is that NVRH has not had to ventilate a COVID patient in a few weeks and has hadn’t to transfer a patient for more acute care in a while either, said Rousse. “I don’t think we are worried about taking care of patients with COVID as much now,” he said, noting what appears to be a decrease in the severity of illness combined with the available medicines and treatment regimens that seem to be working.
The real concern, though, is staff availability. Rousse said that currently there are 12 to 15 hospital staff members that are out due to COVID infections and several more staff members unavailable due to COVID’s impact in other parts of the community, like school and daycare closures thus requiring the hospital staff to stay home and care for children.
“We are relatively small, having 12 staff out is a stress,” he said. “We are trying to prepare for the stress that we could have 30 staff out.”
Rousse said NVRH, like other hospitals, is brainstorming strategies to maintain services should staffing shortages persist and care needs increase.
“One thing we don’t want to do is close beds, and we haven’t had to close beds at this point,” he said. Rousse added new CDC guidance that allows health care workers to return if fit and healthy 5 days after a COVID infection has occurred is helping with staff needs. Another potential solution could be allowing COVID positive health care workers who are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic to care for COVID patients, but he is hopeful that is an emergency plan they won’t need to use.
It is a similar story at North Country Hospital said Wendy Franklin, Director of Communications & Foundation at NCH.
“We’ve been fortunate at North Country in that we haven’t had a lot of COVID patients,” said Franklin, noting the Newport hospital is currently caring for only one COVID positive patient.
“There is still a bit of anxiousness,” she said. “Part of that relates to staffing issues.” Franklin said like with other hospitals, NCH is having to redeploy nurses and staff around departments to provide necessary coverage. Some of the shortage is related to open positions that the hospital is actively recruiting for and others are the same problems NVRH is facing, people absent due to COVID’s various impacts like direct infection or shutdowns affecting other family members.
Franklin said one thing that’s different now than during the early part of the pandemic is hospitals are offering their full suite of services, such as elective surgery.
While hopeful that it won’t be necessary, Franklin said NCH is ready for an influx of COVID patients. She urged people to renew mitigation efforts. “We feel the right thing to do is continue with the mitigation efforts that the state has been preaching at us for the last 2 years,” she said.
Rousse said his personal prediction is that January will be a very trying month for the number of COVID infections, community disruptions, staffing issues and the like but he is hopeful that in February the numbers will begin to drop noticeably.
He urged people to maintain the mitigation measures that have long been preached by health officials, to wear a mask, get vaccinated, stay home when sick and social distance. “Don’t let your guard down. If you can get through January without getting Omicron I think you will able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
According to the latest data available from the Vermont Health Department, the NEK has been averaging 30 cases per day for the last week, down from a high of over 60 cases per day in early December. However, the Health Department announced Monday it was working to update the COVID case dashboard to more accurately report cases from previous days and had not posted the latest report as of late Monday afternoon. Previous updates to the dashboard have seen adjustments at the county level dating back several days as the Health Department works through the large number of test results. The state has seen an increase from around several hundred new cases per day just before Christmas to over 2,600 on Friday alone. 8 of the state’s top 10 days for most new cases in a day have come following Christmas.