March 24, 2020

Our take: Get ready for the COVID-19 staffing crisis

Daily Briefing

    Hundreds of U.S. health care workers have been sent home from work due potential exposure to the new coronavirus and dozens of others have gotten sick with COVID-19, the disease the virus causes—and health experts are concerned the growing number of cases could leave hospitals short-staffed.

    Health care workers are getting sick with COVID-19

    Health care workers on the frontlines treating patients are always at heightened risk of infection during a pandemic, and the new coronavirus is turning out to be no exception.

    Andra Blomkalns, chair of emergency medicine at Stanford University, said she believes the 80 physicians in her ED likely have all been exposed to the new coronavirus. One physician in her ED who was confirmed to have COVID-19 got severely ill, and at least a dozen other physicians had coronavirus test results pending, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

    Across the country, a children's hospital in Philadelphia closed its ICU and trauma unit to new patients after a physician tested positive for COVID-19, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Patch.com, reported last Thursday that 10 of the 44 cases of COVID-19 in the city at that time were among health care workers.

    According to health experts, a lack of testing could exacerbate these numbers by allowing the virus to spread. One firefighter and EMT in Santa Cruz, California, said he was denied a test in the beginning of March because he didn't meet government criteria for testing. He later tested positive for COVID-19.

    Meanwhile, health care workers around the country are concerned about shortages of personal protective equipment.

    One nurse in Michigan said at her hospital, nurses have been given one N-95 respirator mask apiece and were told to reuse them. She also said nurses on her floor have struggled to get as many sanitizing wipes as they need.

    "I don't feel like my hospital is failing us," she said. "It's the whole system that's failing us."

    Hospitals work to make do with less staff

    But as the number of COVID-19 cases increase and health care workers continue to be taken out of work, health care experts are concerned the response could leave hospitals short-staffed.

    "If you take all those people off the front lines, you don't have a workforce," Blomkalns said. Her hospital is in the San Francisco Bay area, which has been hit particularly harshly with COVID-19. She added, "I feel like a monster having to make some of these really tough decisions and how they affect people’s lives."

    Former CDC director Tom Frieden said, "If there are large numbers of health care workers exposed, how do we manage that and keep them out of health care facilities?" Staffing reductions "eliminate your ability to respond," he said.

    April Hansen, EVP of workforce solutions and clinical services at health care staffing company Aya Healthcare, said the rise of COVID-19 cases overall has meant the company is fielding an increased number of requests for health care staff.

    "We are now posting more than 1,000 crisis jobs for health systems across the nation and orders continue to come in rapidly," she said. According to Leslie Snavely, chief strategy officer at CHG Healthcare, demand for ED doctors, hospitalists, and infectious disease specialists has been increasing for weeks, especially in New York and Washington (Mettler et al., Washington Post, 3/5; Bernstein, et al., Washington Post, 3/17; McKenna, Wired, 3/13; Kacik/Meyer, Modern Healthcare, 3/16; Gantz/Whelan, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/15; Adamy, Wall Street Journal, 3/21; Bennet, Patch.com, 3/19).

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