By Katy Savage
Gov. Phil Scott addressed the healthcare crisis on Wednesday, April 6 in front of a crowd of about 100 people during the Rutland Regional Medical Center’s annual meeting at the Paramount Theatre.
Scott praised the staff at RRMC and other hospitals for being on the “front line of a battle we never expected” with Covid.
“They went above and beyond to help Vermonters keep healthy, all while facing workforce shortages, wearing pounds of protective gear, pulling double and triple shifts, comforting patients and families,” Scott said, “And doing all of this while managing the same stress in their own lives as the people they serve.”
Scott reflected on the last two years of the pandemic. Last year at this time, restaurants were at 50% capacity and the governor was just getting his Covid shot.
Scott touted the state’s high vaccination rate, which has remained the highest in the country. Eighty-one percent of Vermonters over age 5 were vaccinated as of April 11 and 67% have a booster shot.
“As we move to the endemic stage, old challenges like our workforce shortage are having an impact,” he said.
The Wednesday meeting was the first time Rutland Regional has held an annual meeting in person since the pandemic began in early in 2020.
Scott said RRMC treated 800 people and administered 60,000 Covid shots during the pandemic.
“None of this could have happened without your front line staff,” Scott said. He said the staff worked double and triple shifts and the pandemic 14 years instead of just two.
“More than any other area, health care across Vermont has been tested. And I can assure you, as someone who has been watching over the whole field, you rose to the challenge and met that test and served us well,” said Scott.
RRMC outgoing board chair Joe Kraus praised the governor for leading Vermont through the pandemic.
“When the history of these times are written, there will be one person most identified as being responsible for keeping us all safe — that will be you,” said Kraus, while Scott was quick to give praise to others, including Health Commissioner Mark Levine.
While Scott talked about the pandemic in the past tense, RRMC CEO and President Claudio Fort reminded the public that Covid is not done.
Fort said the pandemic itself has largely slipped out of the public eye, but the Covid-19 death toll will soon surpass 1 million lives, Fort said, with over 80 million Americans affected.
“We are done with Covid — it remains to be seen if Covid is done with us,” he said.
The annual meeting was held as Vermont’s case count increased 16% last week. The Vermont Dept. of Health reported 100 cases of Covid on Monday, April 11, down from 233 on Friday. There were three deaths reported on Monday — the first deaths reported in the month, bringing the total number of deaths in the state to 623. There were 28 hospitalizations on Monday, down from a record of 122 on Jan.19.
While Covid cases are trending down nationally, health experts expect them to trend up again as the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, which has gained ground in Europe and Asia, spreads through the United States. Scientists predict it’s about 30% more contagious than Omicron.
Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to reinstate its indoor mask mandate on Monday, April 11 after Covid cases rose 50% in 10 days in Pennsylvania, likely caused by BA.2.
Meanwhile, other states and organizations are relaxing their Covid policies. RRMC loosened its visitation policy on March 23, allowing two visitors per patient during regular visiting hours. Prior to this change, each patient was limited to two visitors for the entire duration of the stay.
Fort said last fall and winter were the most challenging for the hospital.
Fort called Covid “The most devastating public health crisis in our lifetime.”
“We did not think we would be in this position,” he said.
Fort also spoke of financial difficulties.
Rutland Regional Medical Center requested a 9% rate hike in February, citing staffing costs and inflation, but the Green Mountain Care Board denied the request in March.
“Our staff have been through protracted trauma and have been operating at continual crisis response mode,” he said.
As far as the future, Fort said, “We see more uncertainty than ever.”
He questioned what Covid will look like and what the demand will be for healthcare.
“The solutions will come from the same resolve and cooperation we all demonstrated throughout the pandemic,” Fort said.
Rutland Regional created a video series called “19 Stories,” that asks hospital staff what advice they would give themselves just before the pandemic started. Many of the doctors and staff spoke about their strength to overcome.
“This is going to be really hard, but you’re going to do your best,” Amy Matrone, a nurse, said in the video. “And when it’s over you’re going to be so proud of yourself.”
“You’re going to be challenged, it’s going to change your perspective on a whole lot of things,” Denise Patrick said.
Fort asked the public to not forget about health care workers.
“We all want to go on and move forward but we’ve got some struggles ahead of us,” he said.