Utah hospitals continue to struggle with pervasive Omicron variant

Before the Omicron variant, the highest reported number of daily COVID-19 cases in Utah was 4,643 in November of 2020. Last Wednesday, the daily reported cases exceeded 13,000, according to the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) COVID-19 Data Dashboard

Greg Bell, president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association (UHA), says ICU utilization is around 90%-87.5% as of Jan 18—with 37% of that being for COVID-19 cases. Hospitals are considered “at capacity” when they reach 85%. 

 

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Bell highlights the significantly reduced workforce in hospitals as a main contributor to the decreased capacity. He says hospitals are doing everything from raising compensation to incentivizing nursing educators to increase the workforce pipeline in the short term and long term. 

“Our raw numbers [of patients] are not any more [than other parts of the pandemic], but our staff is just so limited. We have the real estate and we have the beds, so the markers that we are worried about now are the [number of] nurses and staff.”

The staffing in hospitals is limited mainly because of a rise in COVID-19 infections among the workforce. Bell says that more workers are contracting COVID than ever before during the pandemic, though most of them are vaccinated against the virus. 

He says at least 20% of staff in each of the facilities across the state—including in ICUs and acute care spaces—are sidelined due to COVID infection. These shortages are hospital-wide and also impact the housekeeping workers, technicians, etc. Bell says every staff member is crucial to the functionality of the hospital, which makes shortages to all staffed areas a major challenge. 

“Everybody is involved in delivering services and everybody has their contributions. We have many people on the sidelines.”

Bell says UHA has done “everything possible” to try and retain, recruit, and aid health professionals in all positions of hospitals. Hospitals have called retired professionals, part-time workers, and raised compensation. However, problems and shortages still continue to plague them. 

“It’s not like there is some untapped pool of nurses or techs out there who are just waiting to get a call.”

To attempt to minimize the damage, Utah hospitals have “watered down the soup” by postponing elective surgeries to allow those teams to help out on the bedside. 

Utah hospitals have also recruited travel nurses to supplement hospital staffing issues, as many hospitals in many different states have done as well

Bell emphasizes the great help that travel nurses provide, but warns that the rate travel nurses are currently being paid is not sustainable for hospitals. Due to the demand for more nurses around the country, travel nurse rates have greatly increased, says Bell. This leads to more nurses leaving individual hospitals to make more money as a traveler, forcing hospitals to pay more and more for an adequate workforce. 

“It’s a real backbreaker for us.”

Bell does not think that the recent increase in travel nursing seen will continue into the future due to hospitals’ inability to pay. Hospitals in Utah are focusing on recruiting more to reduce the amount of travelers needed. 

These recruiting tactics include educating high school level students more about pursuing a profession in health care and continuing to expand the recruitment pipeline. Bell also says UHA hopes to assist the local universities to expand the nursing programs. With more nursing professors, more nurses and health care professionals come into the workforce. 

“This is a huge effort, and we just want to make health care a very appealing and easily accessible career.”