Hospital capacities limited by staffing shortage

By Michelle Price
Special to the UCBJ

CRMC Hospital capacities limited by staffing shortage in state

NASHVILLE – Hospitals in Tennessee are trying to increase the number of beds available to handle the surge in COVID patients statewide but face severe limitations due to a shortage of nurses and respiratory therapists.

During the Governor’s press conference this week, Tennessee Hospital Association (THA) President and CEO Wendy Long, M.D., M.P.H., and Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP discussed limited hospital capacities and potential alternate care sites.

“The important part to realize is if it’s beds there or beds at a facility, an empty bed without a staff member beside it means nothing,” said Piercey. “It doesn’t do any good.”

The physicians were asked about the rising number of patients at hospitals across the state and concerns that the state would need to open up alternate care sites, such as Memphis’ former Commercial Appeal building and Nashville’s Metro Nashville General Hospital, that were identified early on in the pandemic. 

“Part of the challenge of current hospital capacity is not physical space, it’s having the staff to work there,” added Piercey. “The need for those beds in alternative care sites – we’ve got beds, we’ve got physical space – it’s the staffing.”

According to Cookeville Regional Medical Center (CRMC) CEO Paul Korth, there has been a nationwide shortage in nursing for quite some time, even before COVID-19. 

“There has been a nursing shortage for a number of years, but we’ve been fortunate to have the TTU School of Nursing nearby to somewhat lighten the burden in our area,” said Korth.

COVID is not the only challenge that hospitals are facing during this time of the year. Flu season has just ramped up, and CRMC is encouraging everyone to get a flu shot.

“There are typically five to 10 patients admitted with flu each day during the height of flu season,” said CRMC Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Mark Pierce. “During a bad flu season, we could double that, so it will stress all healthcare systems trying to take care of these patients at the same time.”

According to Korth, CRMC is managing staffing fairly well right now but is actively seeking additional RNs and respiratory therapists in preparation for a busy winter. 

“We will likely face challenges as a result of both COVID-19 and the flu circulating in our community at the same time,” Korth added.

CRMC is not the only hospital that would face those challenges. Long emphasized, “If we experience a typical flu season, with the normal number of flu hospitalizations layered on top of the COVID situation we are dealing with today, we would have statewide capacity issues.”

Doctors and healthcare workers are willing to do their part, but we need you to do your part to keep the numbers at levels we can manage, said Long.

“Our message is very simple, wear a mask when you are out in the public, practice social distancing, get your flu shot,” Long added. “Your hospital and health care providers want to be there for you when you need them, we need the public’s help to make that happen.”

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