A resurgence of the coronavirus brought on by the Delta variant and the unvaccinated is stretching South Florida hospitals and their staff.
Broward Health, Jackson Health and Memorial Healthcare are three of the top ten largest public hospital systems in the country. Hospital leaders said staffing has become an issue quickly as the last week brought a surge of COVID-19 patients.
Multiple nurses at Broward Health reached out to NBC 6, describing a worrisome situation. They said many are thinking about becoming travel nurses for the higher pay, leaving their local hospital.
They did not want to identify themselves by name or show their faces, saying they are afraid it would jeopardize their current or future employment.
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“It’s unsafe for us because we are more stressed mentally, so we might not don and doff our PPE correctly and that’s when mistakes happen,” one of the nurses said. “It’s certainly unsafe for the patients because they require so much observation and so much care and we are not able to give that to them.”
They said they feel overworked and undervalued, adding they want some type of hazard pay during the pandemic.
“There’s not enough of us to handle this,” another nurse told NBC 6. “They can make all the beds in the world but if they don’t have a nurse to take care of them ... that’s what people go to the hospital for.”
NBC 6 took their concerns to Cheryl Wild, the Chief Nursing Officer at Broward Health.
Wild validated their concerns, saying they offer bonuses for those who work extra shifts. However, the money Broward Health has available is going to travel nurses to fill holes in staffing.
She said bringing in more people to get the nurse-to-patient ratio down is their priority.
“The love we have for them is why we’re bringing these travel nurses in. We need to fill the holes at the bedside to give them the support they need to take care of the patients,” Wild said.
Usually ICU nurses at Broward Health are on a one-to-one or two nurse-patient ratio. But Wild told NBC 6 they are often at one-to-three and at times one-to-four.
“If our community would rally behind us and get vaccinated, we wouldn’t be seeing this extra surge and our ratios would be back down to where we need them to be,” Wild said.
Wild said 20-30% of the hospital patients are COVID-positive. The others are people who postponed care and cannot wait any longer.
“This has been very difficult. The nurses are exhausted,” Wild said. “What they’re feeling is real. They’re tired. They’re sacrificing so much. They’re working extra shifts. They’re coming in early. They’re staying late.”
Wild and other medical professionals said the only way to ease the tension at the hospital systems is to stop the flow of COVID-positive patients. They said that will take community-wide mitigation and vaccination efforts.
“We’re all competing for the same nurses. The bottom line is our nurses have been health care heroes for the past 18 months,” Wild said.
Wild urged the community to vaccinate, mask up and social distance.
“We really need the community to rally behind us and be our health care heroes. Get vaccinated and stay home healthy,” Wild said.
At a roundtable with Gov. Ron DeSantis, his former chief of staff and now the current CEO of Broward Health said the average stay for an unvaccinated patient treated for COVID is between five and seven days. If the patient is vaccinated, it is two days.
The situation is similar at Memorial Healthcare System, according to Chief Medical Officer Marc Napp.
“It’s the sheer number coming in at the same time. There’s only so many beds, there’s only so many doctors, nurses,” Napp said.
According to Napp, the hospital system is currently caring for between 300 and 350 emergency room patients and hiring travel nurses to meet the need.
“The number of staff that we require is staggering and we’re having trouble getting those staff. Bringing in from around the country, paying a premium for them to come in to provide care our patients need and deserve,” Napp said.
Carlos Migoya, the CEO of Jackson Health System, said at a Thursday press conference they’ve been hiring travel nurses but staffing levels remain a constant struggle.
Private hospitals are feeling the squeeze too.
Stacy Acquista, a spokeswoman for HCA Healthcare, told NBC 6 they are also taking steps to expand staffing.
“We are actively working to ensure our caregivers have the support they need to safely and effectively care for our patients, including bringing in additional nurses from our sister facilities in other markets, optimizing recruitment to expand staffing and contracting local and national nursing support,” Acquista said.
On the plus side, hospital leaders said they are not short on personal protective equipment, beds, or ventilators like earlier in the pandemic.
Reports cited by the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration note that 95% of the COVID patients in Florida hospitals are unvaccinated. Hospitals can apply for Public Assistance funding through FEMA to cover some COVID-19 related costs, including hiring more staff.
Florida’s state of emergency order ended earlier this year. Representatives for the Florida Department of Health, the Agency for Healthcare Administration, and the Governor’s office did not directly respond to our questions about providing additional resources to bring in additional nurses.
Tiffany Vause, AHCA’s Deputy Chief of Staff wrote NBC 6, “the Agency has requested Medicaid Managed Care plans make quick decisions on authorizations to move patients from the hospital setting to the post-acute care setting,” to help ease staffing and capacity concerns.
A Florida Department of Health spokesman told NBC 6 they developed a new licensee lookup to help connect newly licensed practitioners with job opportunities.