Small Vermont hospitals struggle to find ICU beds

Published: Dec. 10, 2021 at 5:35 PM EST
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - Since the beginning of the pandemic, Vermont health officials have said protecting hospital ICU capacity has been a paramount concern. But as cases surge, finding beds for all critical patients is becoming even harder for smaller hospitals, some of which have had to reach out to hospitals across New England to find a bed for critically ill patients.

“The emergency rooms are busting at the seams,” said Michael Rousse, the chief medical officer at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury. He says sending patients to other states ties up an ambulance for almost an entire day and it’s logistically hard for families. “If you’re a patient and you come to St. Johnsbury, you go to the emergency room and the next thing you know you wake up and you’re in Hartford, Connecticut -- that could be quite an eye-opener.”

Officials at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph say their record is calling 24 hospitals to find one bed. But Gifford’s Dr. Joshua White says he has heard of some calling up to 41 hospitals. “It doesn’t feel like it should be happening in the United States,” he said.

The ER doctor and chief medical officer says that when they have to transfer critical care patients to hospitals that are already full, the patients typically don’t end up receiving care that could be the difference between life and death. “When you have a person that you are trying to take care of and you know what to do to make them better and you can’t, it’s pretty emotionally wrecking,” he said. White says this happens a few times a month, but that finding beds in less emergency situations occurs every week.

Vermont Human Services Secretary Mike Smith insists the state’s hospitals are not in a capacity crisis and there is ICU space. “Vermont is in the better shape of most of these states,” he said.

But that is not what some hospitals tell us. “We physically don’t have enough beds because they are filled with patients,” said Claudio Fort with Rutland Regional Medical Center. When they can, he says RRMC accepts transfers from as far away as New York, Massachusetts, and Maine, something they rarely did before COVID. “We’ve taken more transfers over the past couple months than we typically would get.”

One hospital that has transferred a patient to RRMC is Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital in Townshend, and it takes more than just finding the bed. “Sometimes a hospital bed is free and then by the time we fill out all the necessary information, the hospital bed isn’t free anymore,” said the hospital’s Andrea Seaton.

A big reason for the bed shortage is a staff shortage. Grace Cottage’s COVID task force says deploying the National Guard is at the top of their list as a possible solution. New York, New Hampshire, and Maine have already done so.

But Sec. Smith says that’s just going to make staffing issues worse. “If you’re looking for clinical people, where do you draw those National Guard members from? You draw them from the hospitals,” he said. He says the state is working on three things to help with capacity -- preventing hospitalization through vaccinations, using monoclonal antibodies on high-risk patients, and moving non-acute care patients to long-term care facilities. He says they’ve put 80 of these additional sub-acute beds in place and will add another 80 when needed. He also says they continue to work with hospitals to add ICU capacity.

Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says the bulk of the hospital capacity problems often isn’t COVID patients, but by others seeking care they have put off.

“As governor Scott has said many times, the COVID positive patients are in the 8% range of the total number of people in the hospital. So, I would like to if I may -- not that I’m ignoring the pandemic by any means -- but we need to actually start focusing on those who are not COVID positive because that is what is really overburdening the hospital steadily over these many months, many people having understandably delayed care because they were concerned about going to the hospitals or health care setting during the pandemic, many people who have not done the usual preventive screenings that protect them,” Levine said. “I want all of the Vermonters who haven’t really paid as much attention to their health care, to start doing that again so they don’t end up as one of these statistics, that people whose chronic disease conditions have accelerated out of control and required a hospital stay.”

Both Smith and every doctor we spoke with stressed that if the community wants to help, they need to get vaccinated and boostered.

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