Almost every day, staff at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington have an Incident Command Meeting where they discuss how they will safely staff the hospital the next day.
That’s because so many workers are traveling with COVID, in addition to a high number of open positions. It’s been like this for months.
“Now, if anything, it’s a little worse,” said Dr. Trey Dobson, the hospital’s chief medical officer. “It shows that transmission is as high in the community as it is in [the] Omicron rise in late January.”
Other Vermont hospitals are feeling the same strain.
“We have people in and out, in and out all the time,” said Dr. Joshua White, emergency room physician and chief medical officer at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph. “It’s something of a logistical nightmare.”
“We’re back with about 2% of our employees with COVID,” said Meg Oakes, director of quality and safety at Rutland Regional Medical Center.
what is continue with the staff in the hospitals is the same as what happens in restaurants and schools and shops across the country. But while many businesses can close for a few days or reduce hours, hospitals don’t have that option.
“Everything has slowed down. But one thing isn’t – and that’s the number of patients that come through the door.”
dr Trey Dobson, Southwest Vermont Medical Center
To compensate, hospitals are asking staff to work extra shifts.
Many also bring temporary nurses, doctors and technicians with them. But these positions are expensive and not always as efficient. It is a financial burden that many hospitals cannot withstand.
And the entire healthcare system is understaffed. Someone might be willing to be discharged from the hospital, but there are not enough staff at the long-term care facility to accommodate them.
Or the facility may require a negative PCR test.
“So we test them and they test positive,” said Oakes of Rutland Regional Medical Center. “You don’t have active COVID. They had COVID at some point in the past 90 days, whether they knew it or not. So these patients have to stay with us.”
“As a result, everything is slowed down,” Dobson said. “But one thing hasn’t happened — and that’s the number of patients coming through the door.”
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The patients who come in are generally sicker and in need of care than in previous years.
“The chickens have come home to settle into all the health care that has been neglected in recent years,” said White of Gifford Medical Center.
There are all sorts of reasons for this: you stopped going to her doctor in the first months of the pandemic. your depression or anxiety got worse. The health clinic closed near you. People who moved here have never been given an appointment.
“We have a lot of patients who started drinking heavily during the pandemic and now these issues are emerging,” White said.
For many healthcare workers, it seems like they have fewer resources to deal with more difficult problems. And just as they’re able to solve one, like a personal protective equipment shortage, another pops up.
“It’s like driving a car down the street and they keep taking parts out of the car… Eventually you start taking parts out of the system and it’s going to crash.”
dr Joshua White, Gifford Medical Center
In the latest twist, hospitals across the country have had to ration a dye used in medical imaging called IV contrast. This is how doctors often find out what is wrong with a patient.
“It’s like driving a car down the street and they keep taking bits out of the car,” White said. ‘We’ll take away your rear-view mirrors. “Well, that’s not so sure, but I can probably find out without getting into an accident.” We remove the hood from your car. “Well I guess the weather’s nice I can get through.” But eventually you will start taking parts out of the system and it will crash.”
Working in this constant state of crisis takes its toll. In a poll by almost 12,000 nurses earlier this year, 52% indicated that they intended to leave their job or were considering leaving it.
This burden isn’t always obvious when you see doctors in the hospital.
“They look good and they do their job and they do their job well,” White said. “But many of them are at or near their breaking point. And you can’t say it externally, and we don’t want patients to know, but the problem comes when they go to HR and quit.”
This happened last year at his small hospital. A mid-career doctor came into his office and said they were leaving their position. They didn’t want to work with patients anymore, he said.
“I don’t even know — I don’t have an answer for that,” White said.
Lexi Krupp is a Corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists to local newsrooms to cover underreported topics and regions.
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