Effective Thursday, Cheshire Medical Center is canceling all non-urgent procedures and surgeries, as the Keene hospital grapples with an influx of COVID-19 patients.

President and CEO Dr. Don Caruso said the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health affiliate was alerting patients with scheduled procedures of the change Wednesday.

The hospital did not have information Wednesday on how many procedures were canceled.

Last month, Cheshire Medical halted any procedures that would require an overnight stay, but Caruso said it needs to free up more beds and personnel.

“Say someone is out there snowmobiling and they break their leg and they come to the ER ... we’re not sure we can take care of them because the reality is we don’t know if we have a bed to put them in,” he said.

As of Wednesday morning, Cheshire Medical had 15 COVID-19 patients, according to a news release from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health.

In a separate update Tuesday from Cheshire Medical, the hospital reported there were six patients waiting for a bed in the emergency department.

And with the entire state experiencing a shortage in beds, Cheshire Medical has limited ability to send patients to other facilities to help offset its overflow.

Gov. Chris Sununu said in a news conference Tuesday that the state is working to set up “strike teams” to open up wings of rehabilitation centers and nursing homes to take patients in from hospitals.

Caruso said the plan could potentially help Cheshire Medical, but that the “devil’s in the details on who will take that on.”

“Our local long-term care facilities, they are doing everything they can, but I don’t think Sununu’s directive will impact us very much at all ...,” he said. “It’s nice the governor’s doing something, but we’re bleeding externally, and we’ve got Band-Aids to fix it. I think that’s the reality of what the governor is offering us.”

The hospital also reported an uptick in COVID-19 patients requiring intensive treatment, such as high-oxygen flow — usually a prelude to needing a ventilator.

Most of those patients, about 85 percent, have been unvaccinated, according to Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious-disease physician at Cheshire Medical.

“You have more unvaccinated individuals coming into the hospital, so as that denominator increases, the number needing that care has also gone up ...,” he said. “The ones we’ve seen needing higher levels of care and are vaccinated usually haven’t been boostered ... or have other immunocompromising conditions.”

Caruso urged people experiencing emergencies to still head to the emergency department and said that critical cases, like heart attacks, will still be treated as such. But for more minor emergencies, such as a broken leg, he said patients will likely have a long wait.

The hospital is also keeping its preventative visits like annual checkups in place for now, but that could change depending on COVID-19 transmission.

“We will probably have to move staffing in those environments, so [COVID-19] impacts all of health care ...,” Caruso said. “My gut says we’re going to have to do more.”

The realities of the hospital’s situation have affected staff’s mental health, Caruso and Khole said, regardless of their department or position.

There is a lot of grief that comes with the job lately, from watching COVID-19 patients die to simply “maintaining your sanity,” Khole said.

“It’s been 20 straight months with no clear end in sight because of these constant surges which ... could’ve been avoided,” Khole said. “And sure, every health-care worker is Superman, Superwoman, Superhuman, but for how long?”

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com.

Olivia Belanger is the health reporter for The Sentinel, covering issues from the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic to mental health services in the region. A N.H. native, she joined The Sentinel team in August 2019.