As Hospitals Fill With COVID Patients, Medical Reinforcements Are Hard to Find

December 7, 2020 by Christen Aldrich

Filed under COVID-19 for Employers, COVID-19 for the Workforce

Last modified December 23, 2020

According to this article from Kaiser Health News, hospitals in much of the country are trying to cope with unprecedented numbers of COVID-19 patients. As of Monday, 96,039 people were hospitalized, an alarming record that far exceeds the two previous peaks in April and July of just under 60,000 inpatients. But just as this trend has shown, beds and space aren’t the main concern. It’s the workforce. Hospitals are worried staffing levels won’t be able to keep up with demand as doctors, nurses, and specialists such as respiratory therapists become exhausted or, worse, infected and sick themselves.

Usually, a workaround for staffing shortages is hiring clinicians from out of town; but this isn’t the solution anymore. Recruiting those temporary reinforcements was also easier in the spring because hospitals outside of the initial hot spots were seeing fewer patients than normal, which led to mass layoffs. That meant many nurses were available to catch a flight to another city and help with treatment on the front lines.

“Hospital capacity is almost exclusively about staffing,” said Dr. Lisa Piercey, who heads the Tennessee Department of Health. “Physical space, physical beds, not the issue.” When it comes to staffing, the coronavirus creates a compounding challenge.

As patient caseloads reach new highs, record numbers of hospital employees are out sick themselves with COVID-19 or temporarily forced to stop working because they have to quarantine after a possible exposure. “But here’s the kicker,” said Dr. Alex Jahangir, who chairs Nashville’s coronavirus task force. “They’re not getting infected in the hospitals. In fact, hospitals for the most part are fairly safe. They’re getting infected in the community.”

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