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Staffing Shortages Put Increased Strain On Florida Hospitals During COVID Surge

With little relief in sight, there are no easy answers when it comes to hospital staffing, says Justin Senior, CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida.

According to the latest data, hospitalizations in Florida from COVID-19 have been hovering around 16,000 patients for the past week.

That number is down from a high of 17,000 the previous week. But it's not offering much of a break for a majority of Florida hospitals that report experiencing a critical staffing shortage.

This month, leaders from Tampa General Hospital, AdventHealth and BayCare Health Systems said the highly contagious delta variant has caused major stress as their staffs struggle to keep up with rising cases.

And with little relief in sight, there are no easy answers when it comes to hospital staffing, said Justin Senior, CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida.

"A lot of the staff augmentation that happened in previous waves simply moved nurses around, and it didn't necessarily increase the supply of nurses in the state of Florida or anywhere else and so you kind of ended up robbing Peter to pay Paul, and it’s very difficult."

Hospitalizations have declined by several hundred over the past week, but they are still at very high levels.

On Tuesday, there were 15,682 patients being treated for COVID-19 in the state's hospitals. About 85 percent of the state's staffed in-patient beds were in use. And 93 percent of the state's staffed intensive care beds were in use. About 51 percent of those ICU beds were being used by 3,645 COVID-19 patients. That's down slightly from a high of 3,743 last week but much higher than the national average.

Nationally, about 78 percent of staffed ICU beds are being used, with about 30 percent filled with COVID-19 patients, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The best thing Florida's hospitals can do right now is make sure their staffs are well supplied and rotated to alleviate burnout, Senior said. They should also consider offering incentives like bonuses, he said.

What would really help, he said, is for more of the public to get vaccinated. More than 90 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, he said.

"Without that population, there would not be very many COVID patients in the hospital right now in the state of Florida,” Senior said. “But the declines and improvements are fastest in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where they have the most vaccinated populations so it really makes a difference in how quickly we can get past this."

And that's important, he says, because there simply aren't enough nurses to augment current shortages.

According to The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the United States will need another 1.1 million nurses by 2022.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Cathy Carter is the education reporter for WUSF 89.7 and StateImpact Florida.