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.