Story Originally Published in New Hampshire Bulletin
Concerns about surging COVID-19 hospitalizations have prompted Cheshire Medical Center in Keene to join the list of hospitals postponing some elective surgeries, pleading with patients to avoid the emergency room if possible, or begging people to get vaccines and boosters.
The state has fewer available hospital beds now than it has ever had during the pandemic, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. Monday also set a new record for hospitalizations: 343, just over the prior record of 334 in January.
In explaining the decision Friday to postpone some elective surgeries, Cheshire Medical Center spokesman Matthew Barone said it is critical the hospital keep beds free for not only its patients but also those from other hospitals at capacity.
“Based on current numbers and predictive modeling trends, the current challenges may worsen,” he said in a release. “All hospitals in New Hampshire and New England are experiencing these same capacity challenges in inpatient volumes and staffing.”
Day and emergency surgeries will continue, Barone said, but elective surgeries that require hospitalization afterward are on pause. Elective surgeries are procedures that can be scheduled in advance, meaning they aren’t urgent, but can also be critically important to one’s health. They include hip replacements, hernia repairs, kidney stone removal, and even some cancer surgeries.
Concord Hospital began postponing elective surgeries that require inpatient hospitalization last month. “The major thing we are encountering is the challenge of inpatient beds for all patients…and COVID is adding more patients to the inpatient beds,” said Dr. Matthew Gibb, chief clinical officer, Monday.
About 70 percent of people hospitalized at Concord Hospital Monday were unvaccinated, he said, a drop from six weeks ago, when 90 percent were. Gibb said that suggests immunity is waning for those vaccinated early this year and is an argument for all adults who are eligible to get a booster shot to do so. (A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released Friday found that 82 percent of respondents said they have or plan to get a booster; 17 percent said they do not.)
“It’s a very emotional space,” for the hospital’s health care workers , said Gibb. “We’ve been at this, as other hospitals have, since April 2020. The vaccine hesitancy is frustrating to most health care workers. I think there’s also some frustration just because of how long this has been dragging on. Everyone is tired.”
Across the state, only 10 percent of regular beds and 7 percent of ICU beds were available as of Monday.
The numbers are worse when broken down regionally, however. In the Upper Valley, which includes the Cheshire Medical Center, only 1.4 percent of ICU beds and 5.7 of regular beds were available. On the Seacoast, ICU bed capacity was 4.3 percent.
The North County has the most availability, with 37.5 percent of ICU beds and 34 percent of regular beds available, according to the state’s dashboard. Still, the Androscoggin Valley COVID-19 Community Group of local health care leaders and municipal officials are meeting twice weekly to manage health care availability. It is tracking all COVID-19 updates, including new cases in schools, jails, and long-term care settings, on its own dashboard.
The highly contagious Delta variant is driving the surge in hospitalizations and new infections. The state reported this weekend that new infections had reached a seven-day average of 979, the highest since the pandemic’s start.
Friday, Steve Ahnen, president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, sounded the alarm, urging the public to continue taking safety protocol measures, including masking, social distancing, and vaccination.
“The healthcare system is extremely strained treating both patients with COVID-19 and those without COVID-19 who may have delayed care or preventive screenings resulting in much more serious medical conditions,” he said in a statement. “Our hospitals are struggling to find intensive care beds and have been forced to look across state lines to transfer patients due to lack of bed capacity, while combating the current workforce challenges that are only exacerbating the situation.”
He added: “This pandemic is not over.”
In a Facebook post last week, Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover asked people to stay away from the emergency room unless they needed urgent, acute care. Monday, the hospital’s critical care unit was 82 percent full, and the hospital overall was 88 percent full, said hospital spokesman Adam Bagni. Of those hospitalized with COVID-19, 67.6 percent were either unvaccinated or had had only one dose.
“Please,” the Facebook post said, “get vaccinated. It may save your life or someone else’s.”
Vaccination rates are hard to track in New Hampshire because some booster shots are included in the count. According to the Center for Disease Control, which state officials have said is the best source for tracking vaccination rates, Grafton County has one of the highest fully-vaccinated rates at 69 percent. Sullivan, Cheshire, Coos, and Hillsborough counties have among the lowest, with rates between 57 and 59 percent.