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COVID-caused staff changes leading UVa hospital to turn away some patients

As the number of COVID-19 cases increases across the commonwealth and the region, the University of Virginia Medical Center has had to divert some patients to other hospitals while moving staff to treat pandemic patients.

Hospital officials said Friday that while there may be physical space for additional patients, staff members may be needed in COVID wards, forcing officials to temporarily not accept transfers or new admissions.

How many patients may be accepted can vary from day to day and even hour to hour depending on staffing levels and the number of patients in the hospital.

“Staffing is critical to being able to treat patients, and as COVID patients increase in the hospital, we need to move our staff around,” said Dr. Reid Adams, interim chief medical officer for the hospital. “If we don’t have a bed or we don’t have the staff available to take care of others, we may have to hold off on being able to admit them.”

Reid and Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology, discussed the UVa Medical Center’s response to the pandemic, as well as plans for vaccine distribution, during an online press conference Friday.

Reid said staffing is always an issue.

“Staffing is tight every day, even without COVID, so it’s a matter of reorganizing the staff to care for those COVID patients while providing care for all the other patients in the hospital,” he said.

Sifri said COVID is having a similar impact at hospitals across the state.

“We’re seeing increasing rates of cases in the community that are impacting us while other parts of the state are being impacted even more,” Sifri said. “That has downstream impacts for available beds across the state.”

Numbers posted on UVa’s COVID dashboard show 69 patients were in the hospital for COVID treatment as of Wednesday. Other numbers compiled by the hospital show 17 patients are on ventilators.

Just prior to Christmas, there were an estimated 63 COVID patients hospitalized with 15 on ventilators.

According to the Blue Ridge Health District, on Thanksgiving Day there were 59 people being treated for COVID, whether inpatient or outpatient. The health district includes Charlottesville and Greene, Louisa, Nelson, Fluvanna and Albemarle counties.

The number more than doubled to 133 on Dec. 27. As of Friday, that number stood at 185.

Reid and Sifri said the increases are worrisome, but that the hospital so far is not facing an overwhelming surge like hospitals in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

“We hope we don’t see that,” Reid said. “We have seen a steady increase in the number of patients needing care and an increase in the number of people testing positive across the commonwealth. We’re looking at almost one in five people in Virginia possibly carrying the virus and one in 10 in [the region].”

According to the Virginia Department of Health, between 16% and 18% of people tested for COVID are showing positive results. In the Blue Ridge Health District, about 10% of tests currently are coming back positive.

As the number of cases increases, so has the UVa Health System’s effort to vaccinate its staff and employees. Sifri said about 7,500 employees had received at least their first dose of the vaccine as of Friday.

The hospital is responsible only for its employees and is providing vaccines for medical staff, housekeeping and other crews working in the hospital, as well as staffers working predominately from home but who may need to come on site at any given time.

Under the state’s vaccine distribution plan, the area health department is in charge of distributing and administering vaccines to police, firefighters, emergency medical crews and employees of essential businesses. Pharmacies are responsible for distributing vaccines to long-term care facilities.

Since the first vaccines were given to hospital medical crews in mid-December, UVa has gone from about 175 vaccinations a day to 850.

“We have accelerated as much as we can to get as many of our team members vaccinated as possible,” said Sifri. “That also includes the people who keep the lights on, keep the computers running and keep things clean.”

Vaccines are distributed as they come in to get as many employees their first dose as possible, officials said. Second doses will be distributed when they are available.

“We are not holding anything in reserve to provide a second dose and we’ve been clearly instructed not to do that,” Sifri said. “We’ve been assured that when those second doses are due, the vaccine will be available.”


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