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UVM Medical Center will increase ICU capacity due to spike in COVID hospitalizations

A photo of a green sign for University of Vermont Medical Center with the red band at the top for emergency
Elodie Reed
VPR File
Tuesday marked Vermont's highest-ever hospitalization rate for COVID-19, with 84 people receiving care. In response to the spike, UVM Medical Center says it will increase its ICU capacity.

The University of Vermont Medical Center has decided to increase ICU capacity after a spike in COVID-related hospitalizations, and hospital officials say the move could delay care for non-life-threatening health conditions.

The Vermont Department of Health reported an all-time high of 84 hospitalizations for COVID-19 on Tuesday.

On Monday, Dr. Patrick Bender, chief quality officer at UVM Medical Center, notified staff that the hospital would be converting space in its perioperative department into five new critical beds.

“The fact that it will be in our perioperative space will have implications on the amount of surgeries that we’ll be able to do in our operating room,” Bender told VPR on Tuesday.

Dr. Stephen Leffler, chief operating officer at UVMMC, said those “implications” are a worthwhile tradeoff to ensure that the hospital has the ICU capacity to treat its sickest patients.

“We have 22 COVID patients, we have extremely high acuity of other patients needing care … and we have a mental health crisis,” Leffler said. “And so we had to make some changes to make sure we had capacity to care for everybody who needed an ICU bed, everybody who might need emergent surgery for a trauma or something, and for all the COVID patients we’re seeing right now.”

More from VPR: News Roundup: ICU beds reach critical capacity level at Vermont's largest hospital, according to doctor

The University of Vermont Health Network said in a release Tuesday that it’ll also be making room for an additional three ICU beds at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin.

Network officials say their member hospitals are experiencing “unprecedented demand for hospital care.” And Leffler said the prioritization of hospital resources for the sickest patients “could impact access for less urgent care.”

“So if some people are getting routine type of procedures scheduled, we may have to delay some of those so we that we have capacity and providers to take care of the sickest Vermonters for the next month,” Leffler said.

The reduction in surgical services will affect operations through at least Dec. 31, according to the UVM Health Network.

Bender said the hospital has put a temporary “freeze” on scheduling all new non-emergency surgeries as it assesses capacity issues; patients already scheduled for surgery between now and the end of the year, according to the Health Network, “may need to have their procedures postponed to a later date.”

" ... we had to make some changes to make sure we had capacity to care for everybody who needed an ICU bed, everybody who might need emergent surgery for a trauma or something, and for all the COVID patients we’re seeing right now.”
Dr. Stephen Leffler, UVMMC chief operating officer

Jericho Rep. George Till, who also works as an obstetrician and gynecologist at UVM Medical Center, notified legislative colleagues of UVM’s plans in an email Tuesday morning.

“Sadly, even before we start to see the post-holiday surge in COVID cases, we're seeing real issues at Vermont [h]ospitals,” Till wrote. “The crisis some of us feared is here.”

In an interview with VPR Tuesday, Till said the conversion of OR space into ICU beds will have consequences for many Vermonters seeking care at UVM.

“It means that some people who expected they’d be getting surgery won’t be getting it,” Till said. “Some people who really need surgery, it will possibly be delayed.”

Till is among the legislative Democrats who’ve been calling on Gov. Phil Scott to declare a state of emergency in order to institute more restrictive COVID-mitigation protocols.

More from VPR: Vermont towns, cities can now institute local mask mandates

Till supports a statewide indoor mask mandate. And while he said he doesn’t think the COVID situation in Vermont calls for a blanket shutdown of retail operations or a ban on indoor gatherings, he said the governor could use his authority to enact “targeted” prohibitions on events that pose a high risk of COVID transmission.

“[A state of emergency] would allow him to consider in areas with particularly high transmission whether there should be very limited, but in specific places, halts to large gatherings and that sort of thing,” Till said. “We’re not talking about overall shutdowns. We’re not talking about shutting down businesses. It could be much more targeted than that.”

Till said the emergency order would also allow the governor to initiate the construction of hospital surge sites, in the event that COVID cases overwhelm the health care system.

“I mean, we may very well need that kind of thing now, because we haven’t even seen the surge that’s clearly going to come after Thanksgiving, and after Christmas,” Till said.

Leffler, however, said a surge site wouldn’t provide the sort of health care infrastructure the UVM Medical Center is in need of right now.

“And when we look at what we need to care for people, we need inpatient ICU capacity. We can’t really be well-served with a surge site,” Leffler said. “The people we’re really trying to make sure we have room for are the sickest people who need oxygen therapy, maybe a breathing tube, stuff like that. That’s really where we’re focused.”

Bender and Leffler said they hope to have the five new ICU beds online by Monday.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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