Across the country, the shortage is making it difficult to treat coronavirus patients in hospitals, resulting in longer waiting times in the emergency room and rushed or inadequate care as health workers struggle to treat patients, according to interviews with hospital managers, state health officials and medical professionals Personnel who have been in the trenches for the past 17 months.
The staff shortage has a hospital-wide ripple effect. When hospitals lack nurses to treat those who need less intensive care, emergency rooms and intensive care units cannot outsource patients, creating a congestion that limits their ability to accommodate new patients. According to an analysis by the New York Times, one in five intensive care units is at least 95 percent full, a level that experts say makes it difficult to maintain standards of care for the critically ill.
“When hospitals are understaffed, people die,” said Patricia Pittman, director of the Health Workforce Research Center at George Washington University.
The Governor of Oregon has ordered 1,500 National Guard soldiers to help the depleted hospital staff. Officials in a Florida district where hospitals are congested are urging residents “to consider other options” before calling 911. And a Houston man with six gunshot wounds had to wait a week before Harris Health, one of the largest hospital systems in the country, could fit in with surgery to mend a broken shoulder.
“When a broken ankle needs a needle, it has to wait. Our nurses work so hard, but there is only so much they can do, ”said Maureen Padilla, who oversees nursing at Harris Health. The system has 400 bedside nurse positions, including 17 vacancies in the last three weeks.
In Mississippi, where coronavirus cases have doubled in the past two weeks, health officials are warning that the state hospital system is on the verge of collapse. The state has 2,000 fewer registered nurses than it did earlier this year, according to the Mississippi Hospital Association. Since neighboring states are also in a crisis and cannot accept patient transfers, the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, the only level 1 trauma ward in the state, has set up beds in a parking garage.