With new Covid-19 cases rising to their highest levels in the U.S. in months, more than 25% of hospitals in 13 states are struggling with critical shortages of nurses, doctors and other medical staff—forcing some to turn away sick patients and leaving hundreds of hospital beds unused as experts forecast the staffing crisis will only intensify in the weeks ahead.
About 53% of hospitals in Vermont and 52% in New Mexico reported critical staffing shortages on Saturday, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services–a strain that’s led some Vermont residents to travel hundreds of miles to nearby states for advanced care.
In New Mexico, where hospitals have faced full waiting rooms despite hundreds of unstaffed hospital beds, some facilities have started operating under crisis standards and have received support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which sent 20 medical workers from the U.S. Army to help healthcare workers in the state this month.
Four states are dealing with critical staff shortages in at least a third of their hospitals: South Carolina (33%), North Dakota (33%), West Virginia (39%) and Rhode Island (40%)—all more than double the nationwide average of 16.5%.
“At some point, there will be no more elasticity in the hospital system to make space for people,” Dr. Andrew Thomas, chief clinical officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, which itself faces a staffing shortage, told the Columbus Dispatch on Wednesday, adding that about half of the region’s facilities have postponed elective surgeries due to lack of space.
With new Covid cases soaring, the number of hospitalizations has risen as well: About 71,458 Americans were hospitalized with Covid-19 on Saturday, up nearly 4% from the day prior, but still below peak levels from the latest wave and roughly half the record set in January.
Rounding out the list of states with critical staffing shortages in more than 25% of hospitals are Arizona (30%), Wyoming (29%), Kentucky (29%), Wisconsin (29%), California (28%), Alabama (27%) and Oklahoma (26%).
What To Watch For
Of the 13 states reporting critical staffing shortages in at least 25% of their hospitals, only one state, Arizona, expects the situation will improve within the next week, while eight anticipate the situation will worsen—with California and West Virginia among states reporting the sharpest expected uptick. Six additional states are expected to breach the 25% threshold this next week: Georgia, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Michigan, New Hampshire and Tennessee.
A nationwide labor shortage has hit the pandemic-strained healthcare industry particularly hard, with burnout causing a significant number of healthcare workers to quit, while coronavirus infections continue to sideline a significant share. Hospitals and health agencies are facing the worst staffing shortage in as much as four decades, according to Bloomberg. In response, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control revised its guidelines Thursday to recommend that healthcare workers who contract Covid-19 but display mild-to-moderate symptoms and are not moderately or severely immunocompromised can return to work five days after symptoms first appear, down from 10 days previously. President Joe Biden also said the military would deploy about 1,000 doctors, nurses, paramedics and other medical personnel to help alleviate staffing shortages in the coming weeks.
An influx in patients isn’t the only way omicron is adding to the healthcare industry’s staffing woes. “There’s no question” omicron outbreaks among healthcare workers are “significantly diminishing the workforce,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told the Guardian. “It has profound implications for our ability to not just take care of people with Covid but [also] the other diseases that are out there.”