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February 15, 2022

Can the military ease hospital staffing shortages?

Daily Briefing

    Covid-19 cases are dropping nationwide, but hospitalizations remain high in many areas, leading some states to request military assistance to help short-staffed hospitals overwhelmed by patients.

    Slide deck: Omicron and the hard truths of the nurse staffing crisis

    Hospitals in 5 states combat omicron with the military's help

    Connecticut

    In Connecticut, 20 nurses from the U.S. Air Force alongside other medical workers were deployed to Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford. According to Vernette Townsend, CNO at the hospital, 50 to 60 hospital workers are out because of Covid-19, however other hospital officials said that number varies.

    "The latest surge tested us in ways we hadn't seen throughout the pandemic," said Thomas Burke, president of the hospital, " and these service members will help relieve some of the lingering impact we're still feeling."

    The military personnel will be at the hospital for at least 30 days, according to hospital officials.

    "The main goal of our mission is to help alleviate the strain on the staff who are overworked due to patient census and staffing challenge," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Stuart Brigham, the officer in charge of the team at Saint Francis. "I am truly honored that I am able to use my skillset to care for the sick and mitigate the suffering of the citizens of Connecticut."

    New York

    In New York, around 40 clinical personnel and support staff from the Air Force have been sent to Strong Memorial Hospital. This round of support comes on top of the two other military medical teams previously sent to the hospital.

    In addition, 40 Air Force members have been sent to Upstate University Hospital for the next month to help with bed capacity. Since the start of the pandemic, the hospital has had to close almost 140 beds, partly because of staffing. With the Air Force team's support, 23 additional beds will open, a number that hospital staff member Brian Pratt said will be "monumental" for the community.

    "With the presence of this team, the skills, the dedication, and the efforts that they are going to bring, we're going to be able to care for folks who would otherwise be waiting," he said.

    Chris Tanski, a doctor at the hospital, said the facility is still holding off on elective surgeries, but as the omicron surge recedes, postponed procedures will begin to resume.

    "We are able to offer a little bit of assistance compared to what we normally have been dealing with, which is an incredibly stressed-out staff," he said. "Everyone who needs care that has been impacted over the last two years, we're trying to make sure we manage all of that demand in a way that allows us to take care of everyone who needs [the] care."

    "We are committed to supporting the community of Central New York as we work to help relieve the pressure on health care workers overwhelmed by the strain that has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic," Lt. Col. Venus Victorino said. "There is no homeland defense if we cannot take care of the service members, their families, and the citizens of this country and make sure that they are safe."

    Ohio

    In Ohio, almost 90 members of the National Guard were sent to help health care providers at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, and an additional 50 were sent to Christ Hospital in Mount Auburn.

    Robert Wiehe, chief administrative officer at UC Medical Center, said the National Guard responded to "the call of duty during our hour of need."

    "Their support has meant the most to our UC Medical Center teams, who have worked relentlessly the last two years to care for our patients," he said. "From all of us here at the UC Medical Center, thank you to everybody in the Ohio National Guard for their service and for what they've done for us."

    Guard members "have supported our team members in both clinical and non-clinical settings during the latest Covid-19 surge caused by the omicron variant," said Debbie Hayes, president and CEO of Christ Hospital Health Network. "We are grateful and thankful to these guardsmen for their service to our state, team members and patients. When our community needed them the most, they answered the call and served honorably."

    Oklahoma

    In Oklahoma, a team of U.S. Army medical personnel have been stationed at OU Medical Center, and two Air Force teams have been stationed at different Integris Health hospitals.

    Kerri Bayer, chief nurse executive at Integris, said the omicron surge "has been the most difficult to navigate of the entire pandemic," adding there was a feeling of "immense relief" once Integris was approved to receive military support.

    As of Friday, Integris, OU Health, Mercy Health, and SSM Health all reported having no ICU beds available, and among the four health systems, 565 Covid-19 patients were being cared for as of Friday, with 26 waiting in the ED for a bed to open up.

    According to Bayer, there has been some relief in the ED lately. "It was just a constant churn of patients coming into the [ED]," she said. "Where we're seeing some relief is that volume has dropped off a little bit … But the volume of patients that we currently have in our hospitals really has not dropped off."

    Maj. Greg Buchek, an infectious disease physician on one of the Air Force teams working with Integris, said he hopes he's able to help the burned-out staff at the hospital.

    "What we're hearing from the leadership here is that even though the numbers are going down, and that they may see a light at the end of the tunnel, there's a lot of burnout right now," he said. "I'm happy to be able to give people in the community a sense of relief."

    Utah

    In Utah, 57 National Guard members have been deployed to hospitals and nursing homes amid surging hospitalization numbers. For example, in Uintah, Daggett, and Duchesne counties, more than 120 per 100,000 residents were hospitalized in the past two weeks, a record for the omicron surge.

    St. George Regional has been "operating at capacity for a long time," said Mark Evans, operations officer for the hospital.

    "Our ICU has been over 100% capacity for months, since the summer time … We've had people working many long, overtime hours," he added. "You can only do that so long. It's not sustainable."

    Nursing homes and rehabilitation centers in the state have also been dealing with staffing problems amid omicron's surge, according to Carl Hugie, who oversees veterans' homes for Avalon Health Care.

    "The health care industry as a whole is failing. You don't have enough nurses, you don't have enough CNAs. You don't have enough staff in any of the health clinics," Hugie said. "And so that's really what the National Guard is trying to address." (Branham, The Oklahoman, 2/14; Alberty/Bitsóí, Salt Lake Tribune, 2/11; Leavenworth, Hartford Courant, 2/10; Sutherland, Cincinnati Enquirer, 2/11; Black, CNYCentral, 2/11; Battaglia, Rochesterfirst.com, 2/15)

    Learn more: Check out our new omicron surge toolkit

    We've collected our best resources and insights for creating capacity, supporting staff, communicating with patients, and more. This page will be a consistent work in progress as we compile the newest and most helpful resources. Check out all the resources, including:

    Access the toolkit

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