As hospitals cope with a COVID-19 surge, cyber threats loom

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Ryan Mercer, University of Vermont Health Network

In this photo provided by the University of Vermont Health Network, IT staff at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, Vt., continue work to scan thousands of the hospital's computer systems for malware on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, after the Oct. 28 cyberattack forced a shut down of the hospital's electronic medical records system and other key systems. (Ryan Mercer/University of Vermont Health Network via AP)

BURLINGTON, Vt. – 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 Outdated, internet-free technologies experienced a revival.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.