12052020 Virus Outbreak Hospital Cyberattack

In this photo provided by the University of Vermont Health Network, IT staff help clinical providers set up new computers at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, Vt., on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. After the Oct. 28 attack forced a shutdown of the hospital’s electronic medical records and other key systems, the IT department, with support from the Vermont National Guard’s cyber team, scanned thousands of computers for malware and replaced machines for hospital staff.

Here are the latest developments regarding the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic throughout New England:

New Hampshire

Jury trials and grand jury meetings scheduled for January in four county courthouses have been canceled because of rising COVID-19 infection rates and limited air circulation in the buildings.

The decision affects the courthouses in Newport, Strafford, Laconia and Nashua, said Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau. Ventilation in those buildings is adequate for smaller, necessary in-person hearings, she said, and video and telephone hearings will continue as well.

“Cancelling these cases is a difficult decision, and it was made to ensure the continued health and safety of jurors, court staff, and parties to these cases,” she said in a statement.

Trials and grand jury proceedings will continue in other counties with lower infection rates and better ventilated courthouses.

National Guard activation: Members of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation said Friday they are glad President Donald Trump has extended the activation of the New Hampshire National Guard to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic but his refusal to fully fund it is unacceptable.

The activation has been extended through March 31, 2021, but since August, the state has only been reimbursed 75%.

“We are witnessing record-high cases, hospitalizations and deaths – now is not the time to shortchange support for the Guard’s response efforts, which include staffing testing sites, conducting voluntary contact tracing, distributing medical supplies, and preparing for its upcoming mission to assist with vaccine distribution,” said Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, and Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas.

Infected lawmakers: A GOP caucus meeting that resulted in at least four lawmakers testing positive for the coronavirus was “horribly managed,” but lawmakers, not public health officials, should have alerted Democrats, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said.

Democrats learned of the Nov. 20 meeting held indoors at McIntyre ski area on Tuesday, the day before the Legislature was to be sworn-in at the University of New Hampshire.

“It was horribly managed,” Sununu said Thursday when asked about the caucus meeting. There was an open buffet at the gathering, and “a lot” of the participants were not wearing masks or socially distancing, he said.

The Department of Health and Human Services conducted contact tracing to alert lawmakers who were in close contact with their infected colleagues, and a letter went out to the rest of the GOP members, he said. Republican leaders should have also notified Democrats, he said.

The numbers: More than 23,000 people have tested positive for the virus in New Hampshire, including 782 cases announced Thursday that included results from several days earlier in the week. Eight additional deaths were announced, bringing the total to 552.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Hampshire has risen over the past two weeks from 401 on Nov. 19 to 592 on Dec. 3.

Vermont

By late morning on Oct. 28, staff at the University of Vermont Medical Center noticed the hospital’s phone system wasn’t working.

Then the internet went down, and the Burlington-based center’s technical infrastructure with it. Employees lost access to databases, digital health records, scheduling systems and other online tools they rely on for patient care.

Administrators scrambled to keep the hospital operational — cancelling non-urgent appointments, reverting to pen-and-paper record keeping and rerouting some critical care patients to nearby hospitals.

In its main laboratory, which runs about 8,000 tests a day, employees printed or hand-wrote results and carried them across facilities to specialists. Outdated, internet-free technologies experienced a revival.

“We went around and got every fax machine that we could,” said UVM Medical Center Chief Operating Officer Al Gobeille.

The Vermont hospital had fallen prey to a cyberattack, becoming one of the most recent and visible examples of a wave of digital assaults taking U.S. health care providers hostage as COVID-19 cases surge nationwide.

The same day as UVM’s attack, the FBI and two federal agencies warned cybercriminals were ramping up efforts to steal data and disrupt services across the health care sector.

By targeting providers with attacks that scramble and lock up data until victims pay a ransom, hackers can demand thousands or millions of dollars and wreak havoc until they’re paid.

With COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations climbing nationwide, experts say health care providers are dangerously vulnerable to attacks on their ability to function efficiently and manage limited resources.

Even a small technical disruption can quickly ripple out into patient care when a center’s capacity is stretched thin, said Vanderbilt University’s Eric Johnson, who studies the health impacts of cyberattacks.

“November has been a month of escalating demands on hospitals,” he said. “There’s no room for error. From a hacker’s perspective, it’s perfect.”

Mental health: Gov. Phil Scott on Friday urged Vermonters to take care of their mental health, seek help if needed and to check in on others during the coronavirus pandemic, which Scott called “among the most stressful events” most people have endured in his lifetime.

“It’s been so prolonged and we don’t know when it will end,” he said at his biweekly virus briefing. “It’s forced us to be physically and emotionally separated from the people closest to us, those we typically rely on during challenging times.”

He urged Vermonters to reach out to loved ones by phone, video, email or text to maintain connections whether they’re feeling these feelings or not and said resources are available for people struggling with mental health or substance misuse.

“There is no shame in seeking help no matter how serious or insignificant you think the issue might be,” Scott said.

Among the free and confidential mental health supports is COVID Support VT, created by the Mental Health Department and Vermont Care Partners to help people cope with the pandemic, with information, wellness tips and advice and information about the state’s 10 community health agencies, she said. People may also access help by calling 211 and many agencies are offering services through tele-health, she said.

Vermonters may also access the crisis text line by texting VT to 741741 for immediate counseling and support via text message, she said Anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, she said.

The numbers: Vermont reported 73 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday for a statewide total to date of 4,763.

A total of 29 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, with three in intensive care.

Vermont reported its highest number of daily cases on Thursday at 178. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said Friday that that number had increased to 224 cases with the addition of 36 cases from the University of Vermont Medical Center, which had been delayed in reporting cases from last week.

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