UVM Medical Center imposes emergency staffing as COVID sidelines more than 400 employees

  • The University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington on Monday, November 23, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger VTDigger file photograph — GLENN RUSSELL

Published: 1/12/2022 10:32:26 PM
Modified: 1/12/2022 10:31:34 PM

Citing severe staffing shortages amid the omicron surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of the largest hospital in Vermont plan to impose emergency staffing policies on Thursday, according to an email a top University of Vermont Medical Center official sent employees this week.

Emergency staffing procedures are an extraordinary — and typically temporary — measure hospitals can employ in order to remain sufficiently staffed to remain open. If staffing levels remain inadequate, hospitals may have to turn patients away and refuse transfers.

In an email to employees Tuesday, Peg Gagne, the hospital’s chief nursing officer, wrote that the omicron variant was “sweeping through our communities and our care teams.”

“The number of UVM Medical Center staff out of work due to COVID has doubled in the last week, and current projections indicate that these numbers will continue to grow,” Gagne wrote. “At the same time, our emergency and inpatient volumes are high as we see increasing numbers of COVID patients throughout our patient population.”

As of Wednesday, spokesperson Annie Mackin wrote in a news release, 422 employees were restricted from work because they tested positive for COVID-19 or came into contact with somebody who had. The hospital has roughly 4,800 full- and part-time workers, Mackin said.

Mackin wrote that the new policy is expected to be in place for “several weeks” and would be reviewed weekly.

UVM Medical Center’s plan comes days after Vermont set a record of 101 people hospitalized for COVID-19. As of Wednesday, 85 people were in the hospital with the virus, including 27 people in intensive care.

State officials are keeping a close eye on COVID-19 hospitalization rates, Agency of Human Services spokesperson Will Terry said in an email Wednesday night.

“We do not yet know with certainty whether hospitalizations will exceed capacity,” he added. “What we do know is that there are several mechanisms through which we can add capacity to our health care system and alleviate pressure on our hospitals.”

The state has in recent months covered the cost of staffing hospitals and long-term care facilities that were previously closed.

Under UVM Medical Center’s plan, it expects to fill some vacancies with leaders who are also providers. In these situations, nurse managers may tend to patients instead of overseeing the normal operations of their departments, according to Meredith Roberts, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Nursing Association. Nurses may also need to fill vacancies in other departments or pick up additional shifts beyond their normal schedules.

Nurses would be sent to the areas of “highest need” and lean on staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Gagne wrote. Some staff reassignments could be involuntary, according to the email.

The hospital has suffered from a staffing shortage for years, but the pandemic made these pressures “unsustainable,” said Mari Cordes, a registered nurse who has worked at UVM Medical Center for more than two decades.

“Everyone is pissed, irritated (and) tired,” said Dionne Heyliger, a registered nurse at the hospital. “We are just waiting for the big wave to come in.”

Gagne wrote that hospital leaders had discussed the policy with the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, a union that represents more than 2,000 clinicians. The federation did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.




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