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Cyberattack Disrupts UVM Health Network Operations

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UVM Medical Center president and chief operating officer Dr. Stephen Leffler at a press conference Thursday at the hospital. - COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
  • UVM Medical Center president and chief operating officer Dr. Stephen Leffler at a press conference Thursday at the hospital.
Updated at 9:31 p.m.

The University of Vermont Health Network fell victim to a cyberattack Wednesday, disrupting operations throughout the Vermont and northern New York hospital chain. The attack appears to be part of a coordinated assault on the nation’s health care system allegedly perpetrated by Russian hackers.

The hospital conglomerate experienced "a significant and ongoing system-wide network issue,” spokesperson Neal Goswami said Thursday, describing it as a “confirmed cyberattack.” A spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Albany field office, Sarah Ruane, later said that it was investigating the incident alongside state and local authorities.

According to Goswami, the network lost access to a web portal that patients use to schedule appointments and access electronic medical records, slowing services throughout the hospital system.

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency issued a warning Wednesday "of an increased and imminent cybercrime threat to U.S. hospitals and healthcare providers." The federal agency said the hackers were using malware to steal data from hospitals and hold it hostage.

At a press conference Thursday evening outside of the UVM Medical Center in Burlington, hospital officials would not say whether the attack was related. They also would not say whether it involved the same type of ransomware that has disrupted patient care at other hospitals around the nation, deferring questions about the investigation to the FBI.

Dr. Stephen Leffler, the hospital’s president and chief operating officer, said at the press conference that he had received no such demands. “I’ve had no contact with anyone at this point,” he said. “So I really can’t comment on that.”

Leffler said the network’s information technology staff was working to trace the attack and would then attempt to repair the system. He said the work was in its “beginning phases.”

“We don't think it's going to be over in hours,” he said. “We're planning for more days.”

According to Leffler, there was no indication that any patient information was compromised in the attack. “I give our IT people credit,” he said. “As soon as we knew something was going on, they shut down many parts of the system to protect patient information."
University of Vermont Medical Center - FILE: COURTESY PHOTO
  • File: courtesy photo
  • University of Vermont Medical Center
The attack forced UVM Medical Center, the network’s flagship hospital, to shift to a paper record system and prompted the postponement of some elective procedures on Thursday. Leffler said that most surgeries and procedures would occur as scheduled on Friday, though outpatient radiology sites are closed.

“We've done operations. We've admitted people to the ER. Babies have been born,” he said. "People who are in urgent need of care are getting it, and most appointments are happening.”

According to Goswami, services may be delayed at some hospitals in the network, including Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin and Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Others were not expected to see delays, including Porter Medical Center in Middlebury, Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone, N.Y., Elizabethtown Community Hospital in Elizabethtown, N.Y., and UVMHN Home Health and Hospice.

Laboratory test results, including for some COVID-19 tests, have also been delayed.

The attacks coincide with a spike in coronavirus infections throughout the nation and in Vermont — and they come as security officials brace for potential hacks related to next week's presidential election.

Michael Schirling, commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Safety, said Thursday morning that his agency was coordinating with federal authorities to “assess the impacts of the outages” and determine their origin. He said that state services had not been disrupted and that Vermont's Agency of Digital Services was working to ensure that the problem would not “cascade into connected state systems.”

Ben Truman, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, said in a written statement that the attack had impacted aspects of Vermont’s coronavirus testing system. UVM Medical Center processes tests conducted by many area hospitals, while the state’s own health laboratory handles tests administered by the department.

"Vermonters can continue to receive COVID-19 testing through Health Department-led clinics," Truman said. "However, results reported through the UVMMC system will be impacted. The Health Department Laboratory is stepping up to fill gaps, and we are contacting our other lab partners for options to ensure that testing and reporting of results can continue smoothly."

Leffler said the hospital network was “fully focused” on continuing its COVID processing and hoped to get results to people “as quickly as possible.” People will still get their results, he said, but the process “may be a little delayed compared to normal."

Rebecca Kelley, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, said the governor and his administration were in close contact with the hospital system and federal authorities. “We continue to monitor the situation and work with these partners accordingly,” she said.

Schirling urged Vermonters to continue seeking necessary medical treatment despite the service disruptions at the health network. Leffler echoed that message. “We are well prepared to care for patients for as long as it takes to bring the system back up safely,” he said.