Hospital shot

University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Easton.

CENTREVILLE — Speaking to Queen Anne’s County Commissioners about the healthcare system’s recent troubles in delivering timely emergency care, University of Maryland Shore Regional Health (UMSRH) president and CEO Ken Kozel identified nursing shortages and “enormous” COVID-related hospitalizations as primary culprits, even though the shore-based system is experiencing single-digit COVID admissions daily.

“We’re seeing delta with COVID-positive patients, resulting in admissions in our hospitals,” Kozel told the commissioners during their Tuesday, Sept. 28 meeting. “And in large part, it’s for patients who have not been vaccinated with either Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson and Johnson.”

“We have the cure,” Kozel continued. “We have the answer right in front of us, and it’s just a matter of getting our community – our collective community of the country – behind the vaccinations.”

This summer, excessive delays in emergency rooms – driven, at least in part, by staffing issues – across the Eastern and Western shores became a point of concern for the county’s commissioners. Described as “a national crisis” by Kozel, the incumbent problems of delays, nursing shortages, and the pandemic have combined, as vaccine mandates from healthcare systems nationwide have contributed to a reaching loss in staff.

After postponing its original Sept. 1 deadline, Shore Health’s vaccine mandate for all staff members goes into effect Friday, Oct. 1, two days after Kozel’s appearance in Queen Anne’s County. According to the UMSRH president, slightly over 90 percent of the entire University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) staff is vaccinated, and “about the same” number are vaccinated at UMSRH.

“Our challenge is, how do we get [those] who aren’t vaccinated now to vaccinated by October 1,” Kozel said. “And making sure that...they’re aware of the expectations [that] we have and that they’re aware of the ramifications of their decision.”

As of Sept. 30, out of Shore Health’s full-time employees, approximately 96 percent are vaccinated, UMSRH spokesperson Trena Williamson told The Star Democrat. The mandate, however, applies to all system employees, including contractors and volunteers.

“It’s a privilege to work in healthcare and provide healthcare,” Kozel told QA commissioners. “But with that privilege, I believe, comes responsibility...and that’s why the mandate exists.”

Kozel also said that as of Sept. 28, while there were 150 inpatients suffering from COVID-19 across UMMS – about 25 percent of which, he said, were in intensive care units and another 25 percent were on ventilators – UMSRH is seeing between five and 10 COVID-related admissions per day, primarily in their Easton facility.

In mid-August, the Easton hospital took down the largest of its temporary triage tents designed to accommodate potential surges in COVID cases.

Even so, Shore Health hospitals regularly used to treat Queen Anne’s County patients, including Easton, experienced significant stress during the summer season.

According to the County/Hospital Alert Tracking System (CHATS), which monitors ER capabilities at five status levels, both UMSRH’s Easton and Dorchester locations were on red alert for over 500 hours in August, meaning that neither facility had electrocardiogram (ECG) monitored beds available. In total, Easton was on alert for 728.71 hours in August.

In September, the Easton facility was on alert for over 830 hours, according to CHATS, just over 600 of which were on red.

While QA commissioners receive weekly updates on hospital alert numbers, CHATS data was first presented to the board as a focus point by Commissioner Steve Wilson during their Aug. 24 meeting. Wilson then wrote a letter to Kozel asking for an explanation and “predictive statement” related to strategies that would offset those trends before the winter, when hospitalizations historically rise.

What he got, Wilson described during the latest commissioner meeting, was a “descriptive” reply related to retention and recruitment of staff. Requests by the Bay Times to read the response from Shore Regional Health were denied, as the letter, according to QA officials, was not written to be on the record.

Though Wilson accepted Kozel’s reasoning that similar issues on the Western Shore have contributed to Shore Health’s delays – the Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center, for instance, was on alert 486 hours in August and 460 hours in September – the commissioner continued asking for strategies.

“This is no attempt to complain or whine about things,” Commissioner Steve Wilson told Kozel Sept. 28. “I’m just concerned – and all of us are – about the capacity of the system.

“If you’re stressed out now, what the hell is going to be improving when you got more load and more burned-out people in late December?”

Before Kozel was given the chance to answer that question directly – the UMSRH CEO would later point to the potential December opening of an urgent care center on Kent Island – Wilson was interrupted by the delayed transmission of a graph depicting volume levels at the Queenstown Emergency Center.

Adding to the burden of a system already stretched thin, across the system, out of more than 29,500 team members, there are approximately 750 who are non-compliant and on administrative leave. Of note, 60 percent of these staff members are those who work eight hours or less a week, Michael Schwartzberg, UMMS Media Relations Director reported in an interview, Oct. 4.

“After 30 days of administrative leave following the deadline to vaccine, those employees will be considered as having resigned,” Schwartzberg said. He also noted as of the Oct. 1 deadline, “98% of full and part-time clinical staff and over 96% of all team members at UMMS are in full compliance with the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine requirement, making UMMS the first large health system in the State to reach this important milestone. This represents significant progress and we are grateful for all the UMMS team members who have made the decision to get vaccinated.”

Luke Parker is a journalist and award-winning film critic covering government, schools, crime, and business. To send a tip or question, email lparker@chespub.com. For updates, like Luke Parker — Journalist on Facebook or follow him on Twitter: @lparkernews

Editor Hannah Combs contributed to this article.

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