AUGUST 30, 2021—Hospitals in every corner of the country are once again buckling under the weight of the coronavirus. But unlike earlier surges when intensive care capacity flexed to grow the number of available beds or acquire additional ventilators, the challenge for health systems today is neither space nor supplies—it’s staff.
- Mississippi’s Ocean Springs Hospital has become so overwhelmed that ambulances are being forced to sit idle in the parking lot with gravely ill patients grasping for life, reports the New York Times. That bottleneck, which is impacting everyone from serious covid infections to those suffering stroke or heart attack, isn’t a consequence of space, though. The hospital told the paper it has roughly 150 open beds. But adminstrators have been forced to keep those beds empty because, with 169 unfilled nursing positions, they cannot safely staff them.
- It’s a similar story elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. One heart attack victim bounced between six hospitals in New Orleans before first responders located an emergency room that could receive them.
- Unlike early waves of the crisis when hospitals scrambled desperately to source personal protective equipment for staff, Parkland Hospital in Dallas says they’re flush with masks and gowns. What they need now are clinicians to wear them: “Now I’ve got plenty of PPE (personal protective equipment) but what I don’t have is registered nurses and respiratory therapists, so we’ve come full circle. It’s no longer a PPE crisis, it’s a caregiver crisis,” Judy Herrington, senior vice president of nursing services at Parkland, told ABC.
Even before the coronavirus, US hospitals were short about 200,000 nurses. The situation is far worse today. Nurses are superheroes of this pandemic. But they’re not superhuman. Tired and traumatized after more than a year on the front lines, nurses are vacating the practice in historic numbers.
A SILVER TSUNAMI
Roughly one-third of nurses practicing today were born before 1964. That means there are roughly 640,000 experienced nurses are nearing retirement.
- Absent a massive infusion of qualified nurses, patient care—and, crucially, patient outcomes—will plummet because nurse staffing directly influences patient mortality. Increasing a nurse’s workload by just one patient increases patient mortality by 7 percent, according to a paper published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies.