Amid omicron surge, hospitals are stretched thin. What can Fla. lawmakers do?

By Kirby Wilson

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As 2021 turned to 2022, hospital staffers were already stretched thin. Hundreds of their colleagues had left for higher-paying travel jobs during the pandemic. Others had left health care altogether.

Then the omicron variant went on a rampage across the state.

“Given how bad the situation has been and the crisis-level concerns that existed around workforce shortages, this is just salt in the wound,” said Mary Mayhew, the president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association. “The volume of staff who are out sick and having to isolate because of COVID is extremely high.”

As lawmakers gather in Tallahassee for the first week of the 2022 legislative session, they will be forced to reckon with a daunting and deepening shortage of skilled health care workers in the state.

At least 44 hospitals are expecting to have a critical staffing shortage within a week, according to data collected Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s the highest recorded figure since mid-October. (The record is 55, set during August’s delta surge.)

Early studies show that the omicron variant may be less virulent than past strains of the virus. But its highly transmissible nature is nevertheless continuing to cause a strain on hospital workers, who are dealing with burnout from previous waves and their own bouts of sickness from the virus.

The state averaged nearly 57,000 infections a day last week — the highest weekly infection rate yet in Florida — and experts say the omicron wave has yet to peak. Hospital officials note that every COVID-19 patient requires hospital staff to expend extra energy and resources to isolate and treat those patients and keep the virus from spreading through the facility.

The Legislature is already taking up a few proposals to widen the pipeline for new nurses. This week, House lawmakers will hear four separate proposals that could add more than $5 million combined in new funding to nursing initiatives at colleges and universities across the state.

Justin Senior, CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, said the state could add a few hundred to the nursing workforce this year by incentivizing a bump in the rate of nurses who pass state license exams. But it’s unclear how to do that.

While Tallahassee lawmakers settle in for the 60-day session, some hospital staffers say the situation on the ground is worsening.

Marissa Lee, a registered nurse at Osceola Regional Medical Center in Kissimmee, told the Tampa Bay Times that recently four of the nurses on her shift were unable to work because they had caught COVID-19. Some nights, Lee said she and her colleagues clean beds to help out the overburdened housekeeping staff. Other days, it’s so busy, nurses barely have time to go to the bathroom.

For many Floridians — health care workers included — coronavirus vaccines are helping to stave off the worst effects of the virus. But vaccines alone are not slowing the spread of omicron, and Florida has banned measures like mask mandates, which local governments have used in the past to try to slow the virus down.

DeSantis has noted that a significant percentage of Florida’s COVID-19-positive hospital patients were admitted primarily for a different reason.

“I think that’s a very good thing compared to what we saw with the delta variant,” the governor said at a news conference in Jacksonville last week.

But hospital systems say they’re still seeing major disruptions.

BayCare Health System, which runs 15 hospitals in Tampa Bay and central Florida, has seen an uptick in the number of staff members unable to work, primarily because they’ve contracted the coronavirus, said Glenn Waters, the system’s chief operating officer.

Infected staff members have been able to return more quickly than during previous coronavirus waves, Waters said, in part because many have not had as severe symptoms and in part because of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated recommended isolation time of only five days post-infection once symptoms resolve.

Senior noted that hospitals have strict infection control policies. Even if a patient is admitted with a broken leg, if they test positive for the virus, they must go through a rigorous isolation process for the sake of more vulnerable patients.

That process adds another logistical hurdle for overburdened staffers, Senior said. Patients seeking COVID-19 tests at hospitals also add to the workload.

For their part, hospital administrators say they look at the nationwide hospital worker shortage and recognize they must make their facilities attractive to new staff — and better retain the staff they have.

Bob Gibson, the vice president and Tampa regional coordinator of the labor union 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, said health care facilities could be doing more to attract talent.

“Employers have the money, they’re reluctant to raise the base wages,” Gibson said.

DeSantis has also argued the federal government’s vaccine mandates don’t help with staffing issues. His administration is not enforcing the health care workplace mandate even though it’s currently technically in effect in Florida.

“Even if you set aside the ethical problems with mandating COVID-19 shots that do not prevent people from getting infected with or spreading the virus, the policy of firing health care workers during a pandemic — when hospitals are already short-staffed — is absurd,” DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw wrote in an email.

The future of the mandate is uncertain. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over that mandate, which was issued before the rise of omicron, last week.

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