Local News

NC hospitals challenged by staff shortages, surging patient loads

Posted January 11, 2022 7:55 p.m. EST
Updated January 12, 2022 4:46 a.m. EST

Staffing shortages at local hospitals are forcing delays in non-emergency procedures and impacting their ability to sustain ICU bed capacity.

Hospital workers are on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, and that comes with a risk of catching the virus themselves.

“We are having challenges with many of our teammates testing positive,” said Jessie Tucker, president and CEO of Wayne Memorial Hospital, part of the UNC Health system.

Fortunately, Tucker says none of their teammates are hospitalized, but there has been an increase in the number of patients being hospitalized as the virus spread increases.

Many hospitals are not only swamped with cases, but severely shorthanded. At Duke this week, about 700 staff members are absent.

“That’s about 3% of our workforce," said Lisa Pickett, chief medical officer at Duke University Hospital. "So it’s made a really traumatic impact on our ability to staff all the beds that we would like to care for our patients."

Wake Med has between 2.5% to 3% of employees out due to COVID-19 illness or exposure. They have over 10,000 employees total.

UNC Health has about 1,000 employees absent this week out of a total of 30,000.

That number is slightly lower than last week for UNC, but still has far-reaching impacts.

“The staffing issues, coupled with the surging volume of patients, are creating a very serious situation," said Alan Wolf, a spokesperson for UNC.

The hospital has been forced to close some beds due to staffing constraints, as well as postpone non-urgent procedures and redeploy staff to areas with the most need.

Each hospital continues to work on contingency plans to handle the ongoing surge in the coming weeks.

“We have about 50 employees that are out positive. We had several that were supposed to return to work on Monday and today,” said Tucker.

Following CDC guidance, the absent employees who still had symptoms or weren't feeling well could have possibly still been able to spread COVID, so they were not allowed to return to work.

New CDC guidance allows infected healthcare workers who are asymptomatic to shorten their isolation period with a negative test if staff shortages persist.

However, Tucker says Wayne Memorial Hospital has not implemented that measure. The hospital continues to stick with the 7-10 day isolation period before returning to work.

“We haven’t done that because we’re not sure that we’re at that point to where we need to do that,” he said.

The hospital is taking different measures to meet the needs.

“We’re looking at some alternate models of asking some of our nurses who work in places like case management and other places. We also look at expanding some of the support team around the nursing and respiratory therapists and getting more assistance from patients," said Tucker.

At Duke, employees are allowed to return sooner if they have no symptoms.

“That is the difference in healthcare – is that we can come back to work if we’re asymptomatic," said Pickett. "At that point in time, knowing that we will always have an extra layer of protection between us and the people around us and so that has led to a few people returning earlier to work."

Those measures have allowed some team members to return to work.

"We are very careful that we don’t want to push people to come to work if they don’t feel well,” Pickett said.

The return to work policies are all by a case-by-case scenario at each hospital and carefully vetted.

Other contingency plans include hiring travel nurses and shifting others resources, as well as allowing supervisors and other staff to take on the job of helping nurses care for patients.

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