As Vermont’s Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations continued to trend down, Health Commissioner Mark Levine celebrated the state’s resilient health care system during the governor’s weekly press conference Tuesday.
“At no point during the Omicron surge, even when our hospitalizations were in the 120 range per day (of patients with Covid) and the number of ICU beds and use were in the high 20s, did the state’s health care system capacity become overwhelmed,” he said.
It’s a stunning assertion when considering the shockwaves Vermonters experienced during this most recent surge:
- Omicron infections among staff forced the largest hospital in Vermont to shuffle workers around under emergency staffing procedures.
- Smaller hospitals resorted to using Covid-positive staff members, canceling elective procedures and placing admitted patients in the emergency room.
- The Brattleboro Retreat, the largest psychiatric hospital in the state, and the state’s long-term care facilities have been hit with Omicron-related staffing shortages, leaving dozens of patients stranded in emergency departments and hospital wards.
So what does “overwhelmed” mean to Levine?
Health department spokesperson Ben Truman made a distinction on Friday between a “highly stressed system” and a system that can no longer accommodate its patients.
Vermont retained its capacity “to provide essential, emergency, or urgent care,” Truman wrote, and the temporary rollbacks of services did not constitute a situation where “hospitals and providers could not cope.”
In other words, Vermont hospitals never had to turn patients away, as has happened at hospitals in Colorado and other parts of the country.
The offices of Gov. Phil Scott and the Vermont Agency of Human Services did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
State Rep. Mari Cordes, D/P-Lincoln, said she disagrees with Levine’s assessment, noting that, when the pressure was greatest, larger hospitals were too crowded to accept patients from rural hospitals, and some people got a lower level of care than they should have because of the staffing crunch.
“Sure, the hospitals managed admissions, moved staff around, and closed units to prepare for the surge,” Cordes, a nurse at University of Vermont Medical Center, wrote. “ … In that sense, yes, they prevented a complete overwhelm.”
Cordes said Levine’s statement could be construed as “dismissive” of people who “couldn’t get the care they needed, died by suicide because of the wait, or got sicker.”
Jeff Tieman, president and chief executive officer of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, agrees that patients weren’t turned away, but said the surge brought Vermont’s health care system closer to the brink.
“In the spectrum between overwhelmed and the ideal, we’re much closer to overwhelmed,” he said.
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