BENNINGTON — In its response to a surge of COVID-19 cases, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center has increased its testing capacity and is working to ensure that all staff members are fully vaccinated.
Dr. Trey Dobson, chief medical officer at SVMC, said Wednesday that the staff vaccination rate at the medical center and the Southwestern Vermont Health Care clinics and other facilities already is comparatively high, at about 90 percent.
But SVHC expects that percentage to rise further after setting an Oct. 31 deadline for staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Dobson said.
“Working in health care is a privilege, not a right,” he said, adding that vaccination protects both staff members and patients.
The requirement will extend as well to staff at the SVHC medical facilities in Manchester, Pownal, Hoosick Falls, N.Y., Wilmington and Berkshire County, Mass., Dobson said.
“Vulnerable people don’t choose where or when to get sick,” he said. “It is our responsibility to do what we can to protect them.”
The directive on vaccinations is similar to actions taken at other hospitals in the region.
The Rutland Regional Medical Center announced in late August that it would require that all employees be vaccinated by Oct. 1, and would tighten requirements for hospital visits.
Brattleboro Memorial Hospital also has said it will require the vaccine for all staff by Oct. 1.
At Berkshire Health Systems, including Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Mass., all staff likewise will be required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1.
Dobson said that by law institutions are also required to allow religious and medical exemptions to receiving the vaccine.
Dobson said the demand for testing for COVID-19 has soared recently, with 324 tests being conducted at medical center sites on Tuesday.
In July, he said, the average was about 20 tests per day.
Anticipating a need for greater capacity because of the highly infectious delta variant of the disease, and the return of most students to the classroom, SVMC moved its testing site back to the former Southern Vermont College athletic center from a section of the hospital parking area. The hospital also has opened a second site near the Everett Mansion on the 371-acre campus, which the health care organization owns.
Dobson said both of the testing sites are outdoors, with nasal swab testing done on a drive-thru basis.
Vaccines also are being provided inside the athletic center, he said. More information on vaccines and testing is provided on the SVHC website.
The current testing demand is largely tied to a number of positive results among school students or staff.
“This is a period with a really high level of testing,” Dobson said. “Schools are definitely the biggest contributor.”
One positive result usually prompts many other tests, because of the many people that the person testing positive might have been in contact with, he said.
“One positive case can trigger 75 or more tests,” he said, including family members, as well as co-workers, friends, students, teachers or school staff.
SVMC does the sample testing in the medical center lab, he said, with results typically obtained within 24 hours.
Dobson said he also expects that COVID-19 vaccination booster shots will be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and become available here by late fall, possibly for all three major U.S. vaccination brands: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
He said he expects the FDA would first approve boosters for the elderly or with chronic medical conditions.
Approvals for vaccines for younger people also are pending, he said, adding that approval of new vaccines or boosters depends on the data on safety and effectiveness that the FDA and other agencies are reviewing.
The medical center is continuing a requirement that all staff and visitors must wear a mask in the facility.
After relaxing some requirements for visitors in the summer, the medical center now allows just one healthy visitor per patient at a time with shorter visiting hours, from 2 to 7 p.m. The hospital has made adjustments over time depending on the COVID-19 infection rate and other factors, Dobson said.
The number of COVID patients being hospitalized at SVMC remains well below the peak of 25 patients in January, Dobson said, now averaging five to seven patients with COVID.
In June, that number dropped to zero for a time.
“The vaccination is the key; it’s what we are focusing on,” he said. “The vaccination offers tremendous protection against hospitalization and death.”