Are Vermont ICUs in danger of COVID overload?

Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 6:17 PM EST
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ST. ALBANS, Vt. (WCAX) - As COVID cases continue to soar in Vermont ahead of the holiday season, health officials continue to keep a close eye on the state’s hospitals, especially the capacity of intensive care units.

Half of Vermont’s 14 hospitals have a combined average of 96 ICU beds spread around the state. State officials have said there has been an average of only 10 available ICU beds over the past week. But rapidly changing conditions, including staffing and other factors, can make throw a wrench in those numbers.

At Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans, the delta surge, along with other pressures on the system, has forced staff to think on their feet when it comes to allocating their 34 total beds.

“We have had days where the entire 34-bed unit was full to capacity and we have had to use our birthing center upstairs for overflow capacity,” said the hospital’s Jonathan Billings.

He says pre-pandemic, about two-thirds of the whole hospital would be occupied on any given day. During the delta surge Billings says up to half of their 10 bed ICU can be occupied by COVID patients, most of them unvaccinated.

“We are strong proponents of people getting vaccinated -- that it may not stop spread completely but it has a significant impact on hospitalization and death,” he said. Billings also says having COVUD patients in the ICU creates a ripple effect in emergency, urgent, and primary care. Billings also says a plan from the Scott Administration to help relieve the stress on hospitals and move non-COVID patients into long-term care and rehab facilities is helping relieve the pressure too.

State officials have said statewide ICU capacity has remained steady over the last two weeks with about 15% of the beds occupied with COVID patients. But the delta surge is creating a delicate situation for a system already under stress from deferred care and staffing shortages.

“Certainly the surge in general, medical illness and the health of the population is really driving things more than COVID at this point. But COVID, of course, can tip the balance and that’s why we are watching the numbers very closely,” said Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.

State leaders say Vermont has contingency plans should ICUs become too stressed. The governor hasn’t shared those details, but Jeff Tieman with the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Healthcare Systems points to Colorado, which has a lower vaccination rate than Vermont, and says what happened in there could happen here. “Hospitals can transfer patients without their consent and in some cases, they can maybe even able to decline to care for someone who does not need a bed urgently. I hope we do not get to that,” he said.

Health officials say the high case count ahead of the holidays is a cause for concern. “As we head into Thanksgiving -- we saw a spike after Halloween. We are encouraging people to make smart decisions and still celebrate and still be with friends and family but make good decisions about the prevention of spread,” Billings said.


Vermont remains first in the country for full vaccination status, but now has the fifth-highest rate of COVID cases per capita, according to the New York Times.

While the explosion of cases in Vermont is staggering, the data shows there is a similar surge throughout our region.

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