UMass Chief: A COVID-19 vaccine mandate may make hospital staff, ICU bed shortages worse

WORCESTER — The head of the largest healthcare system in Central Massachusetts says the hospital bed shortage and staffing crisis at UMass Memorial Healthcare have reached a tipping point.

As 25 Investigates’ Kerry Kavanaugh learned, plans are in the works to add more beds at the Worcester hospital, but requiring workers to get the COVID vaccine as a condition for employment could translate into fewer staff to care for patients.

For weeks, Boston 25 News has been reporting that Intensive Care Units at the Worcester facility are at capacity.

Investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh sat down with the hospital’s president and CEO, Dr. Eric Dickson, to find out why, 18 months and three vaccines into the pandemic, hospitals are struggling and as Massachusetts faces a third surge of COVID cases, what that means for the state’s healthcare system.

“What’s different now is just how exhausted and emotionally drained the caregivers are. They’ve been through so much,” he said.

He said that between ICU beds at capacity and not enough workers to care for the people in those beds there is a healthcare crisis upon us.

The number one challenge is that Central Massachusetts has the lowest number of beds per capita in the state. “So you start from a position of weakness in terms of your inpatient bed capacity,” he said.

The crisis, Dickson said, has been compounded by a 6-month-long nurses strike just down the street from UMasss at St. Vincent’s Hospital. He estimates between 5 and 10 percent of his staff left during the pandemic.

“And that’s on top of some areas that already have a 20 percent vacancy,” he added.

Worcester and Central Massachusetts represent a microcosm of what’s happening across the state and country in healthcare.

“Our number one cause of injury to an employee here is assault from a patient. That wasn’t the case prior to COVID,” said Dickson. “And we’re seeing that across the state.”

And when you add in the new federal vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, it makes the situation worse.

“If there’s a mandate and forced termination of employees, we’d undoubtedly be closing programs, where patients are just gonna end up in the emergency department for care that’s already overwhelmed,” he said.

Dickson said he supports COVID-19 vaccines but he opposes a “one-size-fits-all” approach to vaccine requirements for healthcare workers.

“We have a vaccine mandate here and the President has mandated the vaccine, and we will implement that mandate. But I do think we have to look at some areas of healthcare and say, ‘We may not be able to have it as a condition of employment’,” he said.

In the areas of behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, for example, Dickson said his hospital is down 22 percent of staff and about 35 percent of those workers are not vaccinated. So, UMass Memorial is carefully examining how to enforce the vaccine mandate.

Dickson said they’ve also working on getting more beds, particularly with the holiday approaching. UMass recently purchased the Beaumont Skilled Nursing Facility. With state approval, it can house 75 additional acute care beds. But it will take months to bring the facility and those extra beds online.

But, even if they add those much needed beds, Dickson said there still isn’t enough staff to care for the additional patients.

He worries the holiday season could bring another surge in cases. At which point, he said, the Beaumont, the former nursing home UMass purchased, would aid with surge capacity, similar to the way the DCU Center field hospital helped last year.

In the meantime, Dickson said he’s staying focused on helping his staff, many of whom are burned out by more than a year on the frontlines of the pandemic, and is working to create an environment in which caregivers are cared for themselves.

“Sometimes just having that empathy is enough to get that person through,” he said.

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