The University of Vermont Medical Center will postpone “a couple hundred” nonemergency surgeries in order to cope with surging COVID-19 cases, hospital leaders said Wednesday.
Next week, the state’s largest hospital will stop using seven of its operating rooms to create five more beds for people who need intensive care. The move will prepare UVM Medical Center to accommodate a swell of COVID-19 patients who are entering Vermont hospitals and intensive-care units at levels never before seen.
The change, to last through the end of the year, comes at the expense of other patients who had surgical procedures such as hip and knee replacements scheduled for December.
“We're extremely sorry for anyone who's getting a procedure delayed,” UVM Medical Center president and chief operating officer Stephen Leffler said at a media briefing. “But it's critically important right now that we make this adjustment so we can be here for the sickest Vermonters who need us.”
State officials recently asked all Vermont hospitals to ensure their ICUs were fully operational in light of worrisome COVID-19 case projections, Leffler said. The 46 ICU beds at UVM Medical Center were already fully equipped, but hospital officials determined that they may soon be overrun and decided to expand the unit by converting other space. As of Wednesday morning, 44 of the 46 existing ICU beds were in use, chief quality officer Patrick Bender said. COVID-19 patients occupied seven of those beds.
Vermont set a new record on Tuesday for the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals at 84. In a state where more than 83 percent of people have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine, two-thirds of those hospitalized had not been vaccinated. The number of COVID-19 patients in Vermont ICUs reached a new high on Wednesday, 22. State officials say those figures are projected to remain high for several more weeks.
Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin, a UVM Health Network affiliate, is also trying to expand its ICU capacity but faces a different challenge than the Burlington hospital. CVMC is still trying to secure traveling nurses so it can open three existing ICU beds that have been offline due to workforce limitations, president and COO Anna Noonan said. Most surgeries at CVMC are outpatient and will not be affected, she said.
UVM Medical Center is still determining exactly which procedures it will need to put off until at least January. Affected patients will be notified soon, Bender said.
The hospital is also working through cost and insurance complications. Most insurance plans bill on an annual cycle, and delaying a procedure into the next calendar year can affect how much the patient must pay. Leffler said the state “promised to partner with the insurance companies to try and help in this situation,” but the issue is not yet resolved.
The COVID-19 surge is the latest stressor on an already strained healthcare system in Vermont. UVM Medical Center patients suffer from long wait times as the hospital and others increasingly rely on traveling nurses to relieve a workforce shortage.