Omicron pushes understaffed hospital system into crisis mode


The omicron variant is pushing already strapped Mississippi hospitals across the state to their limits, as health care workers at­tempt to treat a growing volume of patients despite having record low numbers of nurses on staff.

Most, if not all, hospitals across the state were at or near their capacities as of Tuesday morning, accord­ing to a University of Mis­sissippi Medical Center administrator.

On Monday night, a Pascagoula hospital ac­cepted a patient from more than 200 miles away in Yazoo City. The patient had to be flown in by heli­copter because of a hole in the wall of his stomach.

“They called 27 other hospitals,” said Lee Bond, CEO of the Gulf Coast’s Singing River Health Sys­tem.

Mississippi hospitals have about 3,000 total nursing vacancies, according to a recent survey by the Mis­sissippi Hospital Associa­tion. As a result of shortage and new compli­cations from the latest COVID-19 variant, hospi­tals have been forced to cut capacities by closing beds and are now triaging patients across the state to get the care they need — omicron-related or not.

“The game has changed since the delta wave,” Dr. Alan Jones, chancellor of clinical affairs at UMMC said during a Tuesday press conference. “The chal­lenges we are facing are re­ally around staffing. Com­pounding that is that this is a much more infectious variant, taking more staff out that we have in the workforce.”

While patients are, in general, experiencing less severe symptoms, there are a higher number of pa­tients coming into hospital than during the last surge in the fall.

The state’s hospital work­force scraped by during the influx of patients brought on by the delta variant, largely because of hundreds of federally-funded nurses that came in to supplement care.

“Resources are tight throughout the country, es­pecially in nursing,” Jim Craig, the director of the Mississippi Department of Health, said last week. “I don’t know that we are going to be able to draw in the type of staffing levels we saw during delta right now.”

Even if hospitals could get that help again, Jones said it likely wouldn’t arrive fast enough, given how quickly the new variant will peak.

That leaves the state’s al­ready diminished number of hospital workers on their own. The state health department has activated a “Mississippi COVID Sys­tem of Care Plan” until Jan. 23 that requires every hospital to participate in transferring patients so no one center is overbur­dened.

The system is being used not just to transfer patients with COVID-19 on ventila­tors, but those in need of life-saving care following car accidents, heart at­tacks, strokes and organ transplants.

Mississippi hospitals have been hemorrhaging health care workers, especially nurses, throughout the pandemic to better paying jobs with temp companies or out-of-state hospitals. Many burnt out nurses have also opted for retire­ment.

The state hospital associ­ation’s survey, which was taken in December, shows that about one-fifth of the state’s nursing workforce is missing from inside hospi­tals.

“That’s not even factor­ing in those who are out sick,” said Kim Hoover, a registered nurse with the hospital association. “You have nursing supervisors who come into work Mon­day morning and find out six ICU nurses are exposed and literally, as of that morning, can’t take pa­tients now. It’s so fluid it changes from shift to shift.”

At the University of Mis­sissippi Medical Center, the state’s biggest hospi­tal, about 90 health care workers have been out each day because they have contracted the virus. Each day, an average of 175 ask to be tested be­cause they’re worried they could be infected — that’s triple the number who asked to be tested during the worst of the delta wave, Jones said.

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