Vermont hospitals were caring for 84 COVID-19 patients on Tuesday, 20 of whom were in intensive care — both record high figures.
The spike is putting renewed pressure on ongoing efforts to preserve hospital capacity, which state officials have said is a top priority as they shift toward managing COVID-19 as an endemic virus instead of an emergency pandemic. The number of COVID-19 patients overall far exceeds figures at any other point during the pandemic.
Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine urged all eligible residents to get vaccinated or to get a booster shot and to wear masks indoors. More than two-thirds of people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the last week were not vaccinated, according to state data. Eighty-three percent of eligible Vermonters are vaccinated.
Statewide, the number of available ICU beds has dropped 32 percent over the last week, hospitals reported. Approximately 10 ICU beds were available as of Tuesday morning.
Hospitalizations were spiking primarily in southwestern Vermont, Scott said, where case rates have risen in recent weeks. "Everything you're seeing today is really two hospitals, and it's Bennington County and Rutland County," he said.
State officials are spending money to help hospitals manage a triple threat of surging COVID-19 cases, previously delayed care and a depleted healthcare workforce. The state is contracting with nursing homes to transfer hospital patients who need ongoing subacute care, pushing for wider use of monoclonal antibody treatments that can prevent severe COVID-19 symptoms, and working with the University of Vermont Health Network, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and other hospitals to add ICU beds, Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said.
In a press release, the UVM Health Network announced plans to add five ICU beds at the UVM Medical Center in Burlington and the equivalent of three ICU beds at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin. The UVM Medical Center is also setting aside 10 additional hospital beds for COVID-19 patients who do not need intensive care.
To do so, the UVM Medical Center will be postponing some surgeries scheduled in December. Priority will be given to cancer, trauma, and other life-threatening procedures, the hospital said. Hospital officials will hold a briefing on the new measures on Wednesday.
“We are committed to providing the emergency and acute care that our communities need, even when that requires difficult decisions,” Health Network president and CEO John Brumsted said in a statement.
New COVID-19 infections have dipped in recent days from record-high tallies before Thanksgiving, but officials cautioned that the decrease is likely because many fewer people got tested during the holiday weekend. They expect cases may increase in the days ahead and remain high through Christmas.
At a weekly press conference on Tuesday, Scott continued to oppose new mandates as divisive and therefore less effective mitigation strategies. He also suggested local media have fixated on the policy debate around mask mandates instead of reiterating his administration's public health recommendations.
On the horizon looms the newly discovered, highly mutated Omicron variant. Infections from the new variant have been identified in several countries around the world, including Canada, but not yet in the United States. Scott echoed President Joe Biden in describing Omicron as cause for "some concern, not panic."