Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital capacity has been a top concern for officials plotting a response. And capacity is not just the number of beds – hospitals need adequate equipment and supplies and, most important, they need the workers who provide the care.
While certain areas of the U.S. have experienced both space and staff shortages during the pandemic, the current surge in cases is beginning to strain hospitals nationwide, federal health officials say.
Wilmington-area hospitals have not had any major worker shortages during the pandemic, officials said.
But the situation is different elsewhere. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported recently that more than 1,000 hospitals across the nation are “critically” short on staff. That is about a fifth of the hospitals that report staffing levels. And with cases still spiking, some hospitals that so far are getting by have reported that they expected to face similar shortages in the coming weeks.
There are many factors behind the shortage, officials say. Heavy patient loads directly related to the virus, workers who are infected or have been exposed and those needing to help children who are out of school are a few.
Even before the pandemic, staffing already was challenging in some areas. Not only does the aging population require more care, the health-care workforce itself is aging.
The most critical shortages are in hard-hit North Dakota and Wyoming, but Virginia also is struggling to keep hospitals staffed.
The news is much better in North Carolina. While 51% of hospitals in North Dakota report a critical shortage of workers, that number in North Carolina is 4%, nearly equaling the 3% in Kentucky – the state with the fewest hospitals reporting shortages.
Locally, there have been no worker shortages at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, according to West Paul, chief clinical officer.
“So far, NHRMC has been fortunate in that we have seen lower infection rates among staff compared with our peers statewide and even nationally,” Paul said, adding that leaders closely track staffing trends and can respond as necessary.
“I commend our staff and providers for diligently following safety precautions, not just at work, but outside of our four walls,” he said. “We continue to stress the importance of masking and other safety precautions to limit the spread, particularly as we expect the numbers to increase over the winter months.”
Like many other large health-care facilities, NHRMC regularly employs temporary workers – some known as “traveling nurses” – to ensure staffing levels are met. NHRMC also offers sign-on/incentive bonuses as needed for hard-to-fill positions.
Rural areas across the nation have had a harder time keeping jobs filled. Pender Memorial in Burgaw, which is operated by NHRMC, has had some periodic shortages on some shifts since the start of the pandemic.
“The hospital has turned to travel contract staff and offered overtime pay to existing staff to fill the gaps,” Paul said. “Managers have also helped provide staffing coverage.”
Brunswick Medical Center in Bolivia also is faring as well as its owner, Novant Health, which is expected to finalize its purchase of NHRMC in early 2021.
“At a system level and at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, we have not and are currently not experiencing any team-member shortages,” said Novant spokeswoman Kristen Barnhardt.
Barnhardt said Novant is taking extensive steps to ensure its workforce is taken care of during the pandemic, including donating $11 million to establish a disaster relief fund for employees, offering free and subsidized emergency child care and providing overnight accommodations for nurses who have dependents living at home who fall into high-risk categories.
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