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How are Vermont’s hospitals faring? ‘It’s still hard’ as COVID admissions remain steady

Hospital building with the sign "Northwestern Medical Center" viewed from beneath bare tree branches in front of snow.
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
Northwestern Vermont Medical Center had more patients than beds for several days over the past week. The hospital used beds in its maternity ward to care for an overflow of patients.

The surge in new COVID patients in the state appears to be subsiding, but health care providers say they have a long way to go as new challenges continue to arise.

Dozens of patients are stuck at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, waiting to get into nearby nursing homes. Many in the region have not been accepting new patients for more than 10 days.

The hospital’s blood supply has also reached a critical low. The gift shop has been converted into an area for employees to donate blood.

More staff are out at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington than at any point in recent weeks, while staffing levels have improved at other hospitals.

“As one thing gets better, it always seems like there's something — one or two things that take its place,” one health care worker said.

For the fourth week in January, VPR’s Lexi Krupp spoke separately with Dr. Trey Dobson, the chief medical officer at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington; Meg Oakes, a nurse leader and senior director of quality and safety at Rutland Regional Medical Center; and Dr. Stephen Leffler, the chief operating officer at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Their responses are below and have been edited for clarity.

Lexi Krupp: Have you seen a change in the number of COVID patients in the hospital?

Meg Oakes: We still have a lot of COVID patients. Not as many as we had at our peak — or what I hope was our peak — last week. We continue to be having relatively complex decision-making when there's a patient to admit who has COVID in terms of where they're going to go, and how many people do we have to move to get them to the right bed?

Trey Dobson: It does look like we're plateauing, which is fantastic. There is a sense of relief that we have some rough weeks ahead, but we're not going to be overrun with a volume of patients that we can't care for.

Stephen Leffler: We are cautiously hopeful that we've seen the peak and it's going to hopefully start coming down. And that will be amazingly good for our patients, because that would give us more capacity to care for other people who've been patiently waiting for certain procedures.

We have 69 people waiting for nursing home placement. That's, for us, about two full floors of patients who are ready to go to nursing homes and leave the hospital. But our nursing homes aren't accepting patients right now.
- Dr. Stephen Leffler, chief operating officer at the University of Vermont Medical Center

What about staffing challenges?

Stephen Leffler: We are definitely better staffed this week. We are still getting FEMA support on our main floor that takes care of most of our COVID patients. That's working really well; we're thankful for that. We have them for a little longer.

Meg Oakes: We had no new employee positives yesterday. So that was kind of a milestone.

Trey Dobson: Many of our staff are going out after testing positive — more than last week, more than the week before. It means that, at times, we've had to change hours and adjust what we can offer while these people are out.

Are you having issues discharging patients?

Stephen Leffler: We have 69 people waiting for nursing home placement. So that's, for us, about two full floors of patients who are ready to go to nursing homes and leave the hospital. But our nursing homes aren't accepting patients right now. We're talking to them every single day to try and get a sense of when they're going to open up. But I haven't heard a date yet when they would come back online for accepting new admissions.

Trey Dobson: We are still faced with three strong barriers that work together: the difficulty of placing a patient in extended care or in assisted living, the difficulty with getting patients transferred because of limited EMS services and then the difficulty of getting patients accepted at a tertiary care center [hospitals that offer specialized care, like University of Vermont Medical Center] due to capacity issues there.

Meg Oakes: It's a little better. I think the long term care facilities we work with are on the mend in terms of their own ability to take patients. That's what we're dependent on.

It's very challenging right now to make sure we have enough blood to do all the things that we are trying to do.
- Dr. Stephen Leffler, chief operating officer at the University of Vermont Medical Center

What’s the status of the blood supply?

Stephen Leffler: We are really getting to the limits of our blood supply. It's very challenging right now to make sure we have enough blood to do all the things that we are trying to do. It hasn't made us not be able to do a [surgical] case, but it's causing ripples around how to do that.

Trey Dobson: Everybody's very short. And that is pretty scary.

How are people feeling about the weeks ahead? 

Meg Oakes: We're hopeful that this is a downward trend that's going to continue. And we'll have to get back to figuring out what it is we do when we're not 110% absorbed with all things COVID.

Trey Dobson: I don't think the staff is feeling that [hopeful] yet, because to them, the work hasn't changed or lessened up.

Stephen Leffler: I think most of our staff are really living one day at a time — doing their best to take care of people and get through today, hoping that things are a little better tomorrow. It's still hard. If COVID has taught us anything, it's that you don't know what's next.

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp:

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