Hospitals face staffing shortages because of COVID-19 infections, exposures

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Hospital staffers have not been spared from the recent surge in COVID-19 cases statewide, with some systems taking steps to address shortfalls.

Duke Health reports that about 830 employees across the university and health system missed work Wednesday because of positive COVID tests, a figure that equals about 2% of its workforce.

"We proactively looked, starting even two weeks ago, knowing we would have staff shortages. So we planned our procedural and operating-room cases, and reduced the ceiling, the amount that we would put on the elective schedule," said Dr. Lisa Pickett, Duke University Hospital Chief Medical Officer.

Pickett reported that 90% of COVID-19 patients in the ICU, and 100% of COVID-19 patients requiring an ECMO machine are unvaccinated, two populations that require additional staffing.

"A nurse cannot care for as many patients when he or she is going to take a while to get into or out of that room. And so we factor in all that extra time. It also takes extra people," said Dr. Pickett, who strongly urged people to get vaccinated and take other preventive measures to reduce the chance of infection, especially masking.

Nearby, UNC Health also facing challenges; Wednesday, more than 950 employees were absent due to a COVID-19 infection or exposure requiring isolation, which equals about 3% of their workforce.

"We're doing a number of things as an organization. We do have about 40 beds that are closed right now. We have pulled back on some of our surgeries and ambulatory environments to make sure that we've got adequate staffing to re-apply into our most acute environments," said Rowell Daniels, Chief Operating Officer at UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill.

The absences are felt across the system.

"It's not just our nurses and physicians. It's also our support departments that are affected. It's our food and nutrition services staff, it's our transporters, it's our hospital police," said Daniels.

Tuesday was the first day North Carolina surpassed 3,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations since late September, and the state has set a number of records for daily case counts and positivity rate over the past week. At this point, hospitalizations have not increased at the same pace as case rates, though health officials are bracing for a difficult stretch ahead.

"(Today), we had 114 patients that were COVID positive in the hospital. Our projections could go as high as triple that number," said Daniels.

Outside staffing shortages, hospitals are facing another challenge: a lack of treatment options. Two main monoclonal antibody treatments that worked against the Delta variant are ineffective against omicron, and the third is in short supply. Tuesday, President Biden announced he was directing the federal government to double their order of oral antiviral pills from Pfizer from 10 million to 20 million, though production is anticipated to take months to ramp up.

WakeMed reported that about 2% of their staff is out due to a positive COVID-19 infection or exposure, while Cape Fear Valley Health added that around 1% of their staff is out for the same reason. Both health systems note they have not had to limit capacity or delay or postpone procedures or treatments at this time.
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