Rising numbers of nurses and other critical healthcare workers are calling in sick across the U.S. due to Covid-19, forcing hospitals to cut capacity just as the Omicron variant sends them more patients, industry officials say.
The hospitals are leaving beds empty because the facilities don’t have enough staffers to safely care for the patients, and a tight labor market has made finding replacements difficult.
Staff shortages prompted the Mass General Brigham hospital system in Boston to keep 83 beds empty on Friday. The University Hospitals system in Ohio has closed as many as 16% of its intensive-care beds recently, while Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas has shut 30 of 900 beds.
“It’s definitely a brutal situation,” said Dr. Joseph Chang, chief medical officer at Parkland, which had more than 500 out of 14,000 employees out sick one recent day.
Hospitals and long-term care facilities are so short staffed that many are compelling Covid-positive doctors and nurses to return to work, arguing that bringing back asymptomatic or even symptomatic staff is the only way they can keep their doors open amid a spike in hospitalizations.
The practice, allowed by the most recent federal guidance, underscores the dire situation in which many facilities find themselves as more than 120,000 people nationwide are now hospitalized with the virus — almost three times the total from Thanksgiving when Omicron was first detected.
“We don’t have good choices — or the choices that we want,” said Shereef Elnahal, the CEO of University Hospital in Newark, N.J. and the state’s former health commissioner. “Our staffing situation has been the worst it’s been since the spring of 2020.” Three hundred out of 3,700 workers at his hospital are out, many infected with Covid-19.
While most health workers are vaccinated, many are still falling sick, exacerbating a staff shortage as more Americans seek hospital care. The reliance on employees who may still be infectious comes despite objections from nurses‘ unions and the American Medical Association, which warned the decision puts patients’ health and safety at risk. And there are no requirements that patients be notified if their caregiver is sick.