NH tries to ease strain on hospitals

Associated Press
Published: 11/24/2021 6:51:43 PM
Modified: 11/24/2021 6:51:39 PM

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu issued an executive order Tuesday designed to help boost capacity at hospitals across New Hampshire that are struggling with a record number of COVID-19 patients.

The state has been averaging nearly 1,000 new COVID-19 infections per day in recent weeks. As of Tuesday, 350 people were hospitalized, surpassing the record set last winter and contributing to longer wait times in emergency departments and delays in treatment for other conditions.

Last year, the state temporarily set up 14 “flex facilities” in college gymnasiums and other facilities with about 1,600 beds to handle hospital overflow for coronavirus cases. Under the new executive order, the focus instead will be on helping hospitals set up internal “surge centers” using space typically not used for inpatient care, such as ambulatory surgical centers or outpatient clinics.

The order also makes it easier to add beds at rehabilitation facilities and will streamline licensing procedures to boost the health care workforce, Sununu said.

“Our health care system is resilient, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “But it is being tested.”

Lori Shibinette, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, described it as a “back door” issue for hospitals.

“At any given time they may have 15 or 20 patients waiting for a nursing home bed or a rehab bed that they can’t discharge because those facilities are either not taking new admissions because of an outbreak or because they don’t have the staff,” she said. “We have to open capacity behind the hospital.”

New Hampshire Bulletin on Tuesday reported that Cheshire Medical Center in Keene had joined some other hospitals in the state in postponing some elective surgeries.

“Based on current numbers and predictive modeling trends, the current challenges may worsen,” Cheshire Medical Center spokesman Matthew Barone said in a news release. “All hospitals in New Hampshire and New England are experiencing these same capacity challenges in inpatient volumes and staffing.”

Concord Hospital also began postponing elective surgeries that require inpatient hospitalization last month, NHB reported.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon has also made adjustments.

“Like all hospitals in our region, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is regularly adapting our ability to accommodate elective surgeries and planned admissions in response to increased demand for urgent acute care and COVID-19 hospitalizations,” D-H spokeswoman Audra Burns said on Tuesday.

Elsewhere in Lebanon, Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital is assessing the situation as well.

“At this time, APD has not made any changes to our surgical schedules. However we will continue to monitor the situation closely and will make any changes that are needed,” APD spokesman Peter Glenshaw said.

DHMC on Tuesday also said it is tightening restrictions on visitors, effective on Wednesday, because of what it called “substantial levels of state-wide community transmission of COVID-19.”

The new rules mean most adult patients at the hospital will be limited to one dedicated visitor or caregiver per day, and the patients must have tested negative for COVID-19, D-H said in a news release.

Adult outpatients are encouraged to come by themselves if possible, but one caregiver or visitor is allowed.

Pediatric patients can have up to two parents, guardians or support people.

Visitors and caregivers who have any signs of COVID symptoms or are on quarantine status are not allowed, among other restrictions, DHMC said.

Some of the exceptions include three visitors being allowed at a time for patients receiving end-of-life care, though COVID patients at the end of life are limited to two visitors at a time.

Sununu also announced a “booster blitz” initiative now that all adults are eligible for the follow-up shots. On Dec. 11, the state will operate 20 sites to offer booster shots to those seeking the protection in time for Christmas gatherings.

The state also is partnering with several organizations and companies to expand at-home coronavirus testing, Sununu said.

Through the “Say Yes! COVID Test” program administered by the National Institutes of Health, 1 million free rapid tests will be available in New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, a company called Vault will provide the state with 100,000 PCR tests next month. The first allotments of both tests will be offered to schools, Sununu said.

Valley News staff writer John Gregg contributed to this report.

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