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Federal Data Show Growing Hospital Staff Shortages Across The U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the public health rallying cry was, flatten the curve. That's because if cases and hospitalizations rose too quickly, the health system would be overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses in Italy told devastating stories about what that looked like. Now in this country, cases and hospitalizations are rising rapidly, breaking records daily. And new data released from the federal government shows just how many hospitals in the U.S. say they are facing critical staffing shortages. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to explain.

Hey, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. So can you just start by giving us a picture of where hospitalizations in the U.S. are right now?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it's alarming. An estimated 84,000 people are hospitalized across the country with COVID-19 right now, and that is more than at any other time in the pandemic. And when that many people are sick enough to be in the hospital, that strains resources - beds, personal protective equipment, staff. Our colleagues at Side Effects Public Media reported this week that a Kansas City, Kan., hospital was fielding calls from as far away as hospitals in Arkansas and Colorado, looking for places to send very sick patients that they didn't have the capacity to care for. And the fear is that once a hospital is overwhelmed, that's when you need to start worrying about rationing of care and more people dying.

CHANG: OK, so tell us about the staffing shortage data that was just released. What did we learn from that data?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. This week, the federal government released data that shows how many hospitals report critical staff shortages and how many expect shortages in the coming week. And the release comes after a request by Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, who works on The COVID Tracking Project. It shows that, nationally, nearly 1 out of every 5 hospitals in the country has a critical staffing shortage right now.

CHANG: Wow.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: States in the Midwest and Southwest are being hardest hit. North Dakota has the highest percentage of hospitals reporting shortages. Texas has the highest number of hospitals. I talked to Pinar Karaca-Mandic about this. She's at the University of Minnesota and has been compiling hospitalizations from each state individually to try to get insights into COVID hospitalizations.

PINAR KARACA-MANDIC: This was a very positive development this week because people want to know what our capacity levels are, how constrained the hospital systems are.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This data can be really useful. It can encourage people to change their behavior because it's pretty compelling to know if your state's hospitals are full and can't take care of you.

CHANG: Yeah.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It can get political leaders to put in place more aggressive public health measures - that flatten-the-curve rallying cry that was so powerful early on. But there are also limitations to this data, and there's still a lot that we don't know.

CHANG: What do you mean by that? What don't we know still?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, first of all, we don't know how each hospital defines a critical staff shortage. And we don't know what kind of staff - is it ICU nurses or pharmacists? Some staff might be easier to fill in for than others. Plus, this is state-level data. It could be that one area is really slammed and another part of the state isn't, so it doesn't look like that state is in trouble. And we don't know the breakdown of the ages or race of people who are hospitalized, which makes it hard to get insight into, for example, how racial disparities are playing out in hospitals.

And in general, data on COVID hospitalizations has just been hard to come by during the whole pandemic. You might remember; the federal government made a controversial switch in the agency that collects this data back in July. The task was taken away from CDC and given to its parent agency...

CHANG: Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...Health and Human Services, which contracted with a private company. And very little data has been made public from this new system until this week, when HHS released a bit more. So it's a positive development - but still a lot more we'd like to know.

CHANG: OK, so then what does HHS do with all this information? Like, do they send staff and resources to all these hospitals that are reporting staffing shortages?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, that is a key question, and the short answer is we don't know. I asked HHS the question this week and did not get an answer by airtime. Hospital associations in several states told me that they're not aware that putting in this data brings anything to hospitals that are scrambling and facing these critical staff shortages, and the problem here is that it's not like nurses or doctors or whoever is needed can rush to the hot spot to help because this is a national crisis right now. As one source told me, it's everywhere.

CHANG: That is NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Thank you, Selena.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.