Administrators: Lack of staffing plagues state’s health care system during pandemic

Published: Jan. 10, 2022 at 8:26 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - With hospitalizations from COVID-19 tripling in Mississippi over the last two weeks, administrators with four such facilities remain concerned over a lack of adequate staffing during the pandemic that has already compromised patient care.

Susan Russell, chief nursing officer at Singing River Health Systems, said anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of her nursing staff may call in on any given day, in large part because they may be infected with COVID-19.

Those drops in personnel also affect how many beds -- including intensive care unit -- can be staffed.

“The biggest thing is we continue to have less individuals and staff that can open up more beds. And that was something that wasn’t the case in previous surges,” Russel said. “It began to be more pronounced in Delta.”

Russell describes community spread that inevitably leads to infected nurses and doctors as a double-edged sword.

“We’re being cut on both sides,” Russell said.

On Friday, the state’s department of health said Mississippi had 47 ICU beds available, a number that nearly doubled on Monday with more than 80.

Neshoba County General Hospital CEO Lee McCall said those numbers can be very misleading to the public.

“It’s inaccurate. Twice last week, I contacted multiple hospitals, multiple administrators myself, and asked them: ‘Did they have an available ICU bed?’ And every one of them replied no,” McCall said. “We transported a patient to Pensacola, Florida, the other evening. That was the only accepting facility in a multi state area where we could get the the ventilated patient to. It’s crisis mode right now.”

If a hospital doesn’t have staff to open beds, it can’t transfer critical care patients to those beds, meaning even those without COVID-19-related illnesses have already been affected.

“It could be a brain bleed, it could be a heart attack. It could be any series of illnesses that are going on that require for you to get to a higher level of care,” McCall said. “And we can’t get you there.”

Singing River has approximately 70 ICU beds spread across the three hospitals in its network, but fewer nurses and health care workers mean they’re less likely to accept transfers, too.

“During the Delta surge, our hospitals accepted over 100 patients from other places in this state,” Russell said. “We are not in the position to do that again. And looking at the fact there’s going to be more people impacted, it is a cause of concern. I’m a lifelong resident of the state, I worry about the citizens of this state. And we are in a very worrisome situation.”

On Friday, the Mississippi State Department of Health’s director of health protection, Jim Craig, told reporters that resources are tight throughout the country when it comes to additional employees, especially in nursing.

“I don’t know that we’re going to be able to draw in the type of staffing levels that we saw in Delta from anywhere in the country right now, including some of these federal resources,” Craig said.

Still, Russell said they need to try.

The first step, both administrators agree, is for Gov. Tate Reeves to issue a state of emergency so those resources can be more easily obtained.

Reeves allowed the original emergency order to expire in November.

“We have been facing these surges for two years, and it’s taken a toll. I do know that more assistance from the state in forms of funding would be appreciated. Every hospital I’ve talked to is in major financial disarray due to COVID,” Russell said. “COVID does not pay well, there are times we have had to not do procedures that we need to do. And definitely more federal assistance would be appreciated. But if it doesn’t make it down to the hospitals, where they can parlay it into resources itself, it is a problem.”

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