How Connecticut hospitals are changing as COVID patients decline

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As COVID patients decline, health care systems are returning to their pre-pandemic form and winding down mass testing and vaccination sites.

As COVID patients decline, health care systems are returning to their pre-pandemic form and winding down mass testing and vaccination sites.

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The days when Connecticut hospitals were nearly full with COVID patients are over, and health care systems are starting to return to their pre-pandemic form.

COVID-devoted hospital wings are being converted back to their original wards and mass testing and vaccination sites are winding down.

“If you look at the hospital in February 2020 and you look at the hospital today, we’re the same,” said Dr. Daniel Gottschall, vice president of medical affairs for the Fairfield region of Hartford HealthCare and St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport. “Just, for the last 15 to 18 months we were changing, sometimes on a daily basis.”

St. Vincent’s Medical Center, which once had more than 160 COVID patients at once, had none as of Thursday.

“That was about 80 percent of our census,” Gottschall said of the COVID patients. “Everybody was touching the lives of these patients. Every ward was basically a COVID ward.”

As COVID hospitalizations statewide have dropped below 100 in recent weeks, health care systems have begun diverting resources.

At St. Vincent’s, where three intensive care units had been set up to treat COVID patients, the hospital is back to just one ICU and one progressive care unit. Staff members who had been pulled from other disciplines to treat COVID patients have also returned to their original jobs.

A mass testing site in the parking garage of Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena closed in recent weeks, because, Gottschall said, “we don’t need to do mass testing anymore.”

Throughout Hartford HealthCare — the system that includes St. Vincent’s, as well as Hartford Hospital and other facilities — there are now around 25 COVID patients being treated, according to Dr. Ajay Kumar, Hartford HealthCare’s chief medical officer.

At one point when demand for COVID vaccines peaked, Kumar said HHC offered six mass vaccination sites throughout the state.

“At our peak, (these sites) were vaccinating up to 6,000 people a day,” he said, adding that each mass vaccination clinic was immunizing anywhere from 800 to 1,200 patients a day.

But demand has dropped and three of the mass vaccination clinics have closed. Kumar said the system’s vaccination clinics now only see a total of a few hundred patients each day.

St. Vincent’s two mega sites — at Sacred Heart University and Central High School in Bridgeport — are still open, but are expected to close soon.

Kumar stressed that patients will still have access to vaccines, through acute care facilities and medical group clinics, as well as a mobile clinic. “HHC is not shutting down access to the vaccine,” he said.

At Nuvance Health, which includes Norwalk, New Milford, Danbury and Sharon hospitals, COVID measures have also been scaled back.

“We used to have multiple ICUs and COVID floors going on at the same time in each of our hospitals,” said Dr. Diane Kantaros, the system’s chief quality officer. “But now, they’ve all been able to scale back.”

At Yale New Haven Health, cases have dropped to as low as 23 systemwide, said Dr. Thomas Balcezak,the system’s chief clinical officer. As a result, the system has converted the three floors dedicated to COVID-19 patients at its Smilow Cancer Hospital back to regular oncology beds. Other changes include shutting down its mass vaccination clinics as demand for vaccines has waned.

However, Balcezak cautioned that COVID will likely never completely go away. “I feel like we’ll always have some cases kicking around,” he said.

Balcezak and other health experts said if another COVID surge occurs, they are prepared to shift their resources back to addressing the illness at a moment’s notice.

“Hopefully, we won’t have another surge, but feel pretty confident, that having (handled two surges already) we could do it again,” Kantaros said.