Sununu signs order to deal with hospital bed capacity 'crisis'

Gov. Chris Sununu discussed an executive order he signed Tuesday to deal with a "crisis" in hospital bed capacity as COVID-19 hospitalizations reached historic levels since the pandemic began.

CONCORD — Following a second straight day of record COVID-19 hospitalizations, Gov. Chris Sununu signed an executive order to let hospitals exceed their licensed bed limits.

The order will permit hospitals to create “internal surge centers” on the hospital campus to have more available beds even as these health care providers confront a chronic workforce shortage.

“Our health care system is resilient…but it is being tested with the increased amount of COVID we are seeing inside the walls of the hospitals,” Sununu said, referring to a “hospital capacity crisis” during a COVID-19 briefing update Tuesday.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said the order addresses the “back door” crunch that hospital CEOs are facing as a few dozen patients statewide every day wait in hospital beds for a bed to open up in a nursing home or rehabilitation hospital.

“We have to open up capacity behind the hospitals, whether it’s nursing homes, homeless shelters, this again is a back door” adding to the capacity crunch in hospitals, she said.

The order allows the state to let “other institutional licensed facilities” increase their bed limits to address this issue.

Both Sununu and Shibinette said it’s becoming increasingly likely the state will call up New Hampshire National Guard troops to assist the heads of hospitals and possibly those running long-term care settings dealing with chronic staffing shortages.

“We could do it right now, and at some point I think that need will likely be there,” Sununu said.

Shibinette said hospital leaders are identifying non-medical staff needs they have which guard forces could provide, ranging from laundry service, logistics and administration to dietary programs.

“We are defining the roles right now so we can pull that lever very quickly if we have to,” Shibinette said.

350 hospitalized

State officials announced Tuesday there were 350 hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms, breaking the previous day’s record of 343 residents.

According to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, the state also had its lowest capacity for available hospital beds in the system since the pandemic began.

As of Tuesday statewide, only 11% of beds were available and 6.3% of intensive care unit beds were open.

Sununu said these numbers were especially alarming given that the hospital administrators only have the staff to man 85% of their available beds.

Executives at Concord Hospital, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene and Wentworth-Douglass in Dover announced they were pulling back on some elective procedures to cope with their bed capacity crunch.

New Hampshire has been averaging 1,000 new positive cases of the virus a day with a positivity test rate of 9.5%. That’s nearly double what it was a few months ago, according to State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan.

“We are experiencing the highest levels of COVID-19 that we are seeing during this (entire) pandemic,” Chan said.

Sununu added he expected these numbers will get worse before they get better.

Sununu’s executive order also brings back streamlined licensing for health care providers, some that went away when Sununu ended the COVID-19 state of emergency last June.

Last Monday, the Executive Council approved the state Office of Professional Licensure and Certification hiring a half dozen more staffers to help deal with a backlog of applications from nurses and other health care professionals.

Executive Director Lindsey Courtney said the state has significantly reduced the backlog in recent weeks, and some of those remaining are from applicants who need to provide more information to get their licenses approved.

In a related development, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen announced Tuesday more than 225 rural health care providers will share more than $76 million in federal grants from the American Rescue Plan.

The Biden administration approved Tuesday releasing a total of $7.5 billion in aid set aside for rural communities.

Sununu said the health care provider aid couldn’t come at a better time.