Across the country, the shortages are complicating efforts to treat hospitalized coronavirus patients, leading to longer emergency room waiting times and rushed or inadequate care as health workers struggle to treat patients who often require exacting, round-the-clock attention, according to interviews with hospital executives, state health officials and medical workers who have spent the past 17 months in the trenches.
The staffing shortages have a hospital-wide domino effect. When hospitals lack nurses to treat those who need less intensive care, emergency rooms and I.C.U.s are unable to move out patients, creating a traffic jam that limits their ability to admit new ones. One in five I.C.U.s are at least 95 percent capacity, according to an analysis by The New York Times, a level experts say makes it difficult to maintain standards of care for the very sick.
“When hospitals are understaffed, people die,” said Patricia Pittman, director of the Health Workforce Research Center at George Washington University.
Oregon’s governor has ordered 1,500 National Guard troops to help tapped-out hospital staff. Officials in a Florida county where hospitals are over capacity are urging residents “to consider other options” before calling 911. And a Houston man with six gunshot wounds had to wait a week before Harris Health, one of the country’s largest hospital systems, could fit him in for surgery to repair a shattered shoulder.
“If it’s a broken ankle that needs a pin, it’s going to have to wait. Our nurses are working so hard, but they can only do so much,” said Maureen Padilla, who oversees nursing at Harris Health. The system has 400 openings for bedside nurses, including 17 that became vacant in the last three weeks.
In Mississippi, where coronavirus cases have doubled over the past two weeks, health officials are warning that the state’s hospital system is on the verge of collapse. The state has 2,000 fewer registered nurses than it did at the beginning of the year, according to the Mississippi Hospital Association. With neighboring states also in crisis and unable to take patient transfers, the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, the only Level 1 trauma unit in the state, has been setting up beds inside a parking garage.