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As a federal staffing team departs from Elliot Hospital, the crisis continues

A photo of a medical staffer putting on gloves and wearing full PPE.
Elliot Health System
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SolutionHealth
During their brief stay, the 24-person team with the National Disaster Medical System has helped Elliot Hospital reduce wait times for patients in the Emergency Department and boost morale of Elliot staff, says Dr. Greg Baxter, president of Elliot Health System.

Michael Player recently visited New Hampshire for the first time, but he didn’t have a ton of time to see the sights.

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“I intend to come back to New Hampshire with my wife when I’m not working 12-hour shifts in a hospital,” says Player, who has been running a 24-person Disaster Medical Assistance Team at Elliot Hospital in Manchester, which is facing an unprecedented volume of COVID and non-COVID patients.

After spending 11 days at Elliot Hospital, Player is returning to Virginia where he’ll continue working his day job until he’s called up again by the federal National Disaster Medical System to help another hospital in crisis.

As the team's final day ends, the 10 beds they helped open up in Elliot Hospital are returning to their prior unstaffed status. While COVID-19 hospitalizations have begun creeping downward in New Hampshire, Elliot Hospital’s intensive care unit is still treating more patients than it normally has capacity for. Losing these federal staffers, and the beds they helped open will have an impact.

With staffing even tighter than usual over the holidays, Dr. Greg Baxter, president of Elliot Health System says the hospital will have to close the 10 extra beds.

During their brief stay, Baxter says the federal team has helped Elliot Hospital reduce wait times for patients in the Emergency Department, and cut the percentage of patients leaving the hospital without being seen, from 14 to four percent.

There are also less measurable impacts, says Baxter, like the boost to morale the team gave to Elliot staff.

But the continued level of the crisis means that some of the improvements the federal team brought about, like lowering ED wait times, will likely reverse course.

Federal staff image 2 support elliot hospital during crisis
Elliot Health System/SolutionHealth
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Demand for federal staffing is high, and their stays are often short.

Federal paramedics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will continue at Elliot and other hospitals into January.

Tapping into federal resources is a part of Gov. Chris Sununu’s plan to help the state’s overwhelmed healthcare system manage the COVID-19 surge and persistent staffing shortages. But the demand for these teams is incredibly high and their stays are often short.

With COVID cases likely to rise after the holidays, and the looming threat of the more contagious omicron variant, the band-aid of federal staffing may be ripped off before the infrastructure is in place for the wound to heal.

“The best thing to do is to make sure you reduce the hospitalizations,” Sununu said at a press conference Wednesday.

While Sununu has maintained his decision not to implement public health requirements like indoor masking or declare a state of emergency, he announced another round of the state’s program for free at-home delivery COVID-19 testing.

Registration will open Thursday morning at nh.gov for households who did not get the tests in the first round of the program last month, where tests ran out in less than 24 hours.

Sununu said he can draw on more National Guard members to help backfill hospital staffing in non-clinical roles, like cleaning and nutrition. More COVID-19 vaccination sites will also be opening in the coming weeks.

Corrected: December 22, 2021 at 6:30 PM EST
Due to an editing error, this article originally said vaccines.nh.gov was the website to get free at-home COVID tests. It is actually nh.gov.