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Staff shortages and surging coronavirus cases are straining Florida hospitals

Florida Hospital Association president Mary Mayhew says staff having to isolate due to the virus and workers taking lucrative travel jobs are posing challenges for hospitals amid the omicron surge.

COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to rise in Florida, although not yet to the peak levels seen during the delta surge last summer. Florida Hospital Association president Mary Mayhew said the omicron variant is causing less severe illness in most patients.

She said the portion of COVID patients requiring intensive care or oxygen is far lower than during delta. Some patients aren't even going to the hospital for COVID, but instead are testing positive while seeking care for something else.

Still, Mayhew tells Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini the surge is straining hospitals.

Why are the rising hospitalization numbers still challenging?

We certainly still are having individuals being hospitalized for COVID, but even those who test positive that may not have severe symptoms or symptoms at all still require isolation, still require the use of all the personal protective equipment, etc. It is still a resource intensive response at a time when we're experiencing one of the worst workforce shortages we've ever seen.

What's going on with the staffing shortages?

It's been bad for quite some time. It was certainly a shortage before the pandemic, exacerbated because of the stress and strain over the last two years that our staff, our nurses, have been responding to. It is now compounded by the number of staff who are out sick because of COVID, needing to isolate because of COVID.

Now, our hospitals are very sophisticated in responding to a surge. At this point, hospitals, for the most part, have not needed to restrict those procedures that can be safely postponed or rescheduled.

Unfortunately though, physicians and other staff, because they are out with COVID, that is resulting in cancellations of procedures and services. So certainly individuals are hearing from their doctor's offices and from the hospital, but much of that is because there aren't staff there who can provide those elective procedures.

Right before cases were surging in Florida again, other parts of the country were dealing with surges. Did we see an exodus of nurses here, leaving to take higher paying travel opportunities elsewhere?

It's a really good point. In the past, throughout the pandemic, the country has experienced these surges at different times. This omicron surge appears to be affecting many states at the same time, which means that the demand for staff is being felt across the country. And of course, the workforce shortage is a national challenge.

What we are struggling with is the role of staffing agencies that initially responded to the need for nurses to be available in other parts of the country. But it has created a real challenge in meeting the needs locally as nurses have left to support staffing agency needs in other parts of the country.

But unfortunately, we're also seeing nurses that are leaving their job locally, joining the staffing agency and then going to work at a neighboring hospital, or in some instances coming back to the very hospital that they worked in under a temporary staffing contract. That's obviously not in the best interest of continuity of care or workplace morale. So those are some issues that we are absolutely trying to address.

What can the state or federal government do to help?

There are a lot of conversations occurring both at the state and federal level. The extreme increase in the rates that have been charged by the staffing agencies throughout the pandemic, we certainly have some significant concerns about the financial impact that that has had on all healthcare providers. Hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities — they are all feeling the brunt of this dramatic increase in cost of temporary staffing.

It's not sustainable at the rate that it has increased and the impact that it's having, and the dependency hospitals and other providers have on temporary staffing. And this issue of where the staff are coming from, certainly conversations [are being had] around whether or not there could be mileage restrictions that would prevent individuals from coming and going within a certain geographic area.

Hospitals may not be seeing as high of numbers as they did during the delta surge, but we have still seen a rapid increase recently. What are hospitals doing to brace for what could be a rough couple of weeks?

Well, unfortunately they’ve been here for before and they have now experienced multiple surges. Now the positive with that is they’re prepared, they’re experienced. They have been testing and reevaluating all the aspects of their surge plans, from restructuring their staffing models to ensure that they have staffing at the bedside, to how they maximize their physical plant space and how they monitor trends and forecast out in order to plan.

So they are doing all of that and more to ensure that there is access, not only to those who need hospitalization for COVID, but to all of those who need hospital level of care.

Copyright 2022 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.