Tennessee hospitals face surging COVID-19 cases and staffing issues

Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 8:20 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As the omicron surge sweeps across the country, hospitals are buckling under the pressure of rising hospitalizations, including in the Mid-South.

An Action News 5 analysis of federal healthcare data found 25% of hospitals in Tennessee are facing critical staffing shortages.

Baptist Memorial Health Care says more than 650 of its workers in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas are out right now because of COVID-19.

“Like much of the Mid-South, our team members have been significantly affected by the latest COVID-19 variant,” said Ayoka Pond with Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation. “We are monitoring the situation and making adjustments in staffing so that we can continue to provide for our patients in the community. We are grateful for the flexibility and resilience of our team members. They have shown themselves to be true heroes during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Healthcare systems across the Mid-South, including Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, are facing a similar problem.

“We did have some staffing challenges even before the pandemic, but certainly the pandemic, COVID has absolutely exacerbated it,” said Nikki Polis, chief nurse executive at Methodist.

Angie Golding, a spokesperson for Regional One, says the hospital is also experiencing the strain of increased patient volumes and staffing due to COVID-19.

“We are adjusting as necessary to have clinical staff available to care for patients and other employees are stepping up to help in non-clinical roles as needed,” said Golding. “We continue to encourage individuals to only use the emergency department for emergencies and to not come to a hospital for routine COVID testing.”

Action News 5 analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which tracks hospital staffing levels across the country every day.

The data showed 25% of hospitals in Tennessee reported a critical staffing shortage Tuesday, along with 14% of hospitals in Arkansas and 6% of hospitals in Mississippi.

The number of hospitals that say they expect to see a critical staffing shortage in the next few days is even higher.

Some 40% of hospitals in Tennessee say they expect to see a critical staffing shortage in the next week, which would be the highest total of the pandemic.

In Mississippi, 25% of hospitals expect to experience a critical staffing shortage over the next week.

In Arkansas, 28% of hospitals expect to see a critical hospital shortage in the next week.

Dr. Stephen Threlkeld with Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis says healthcare staffing shortages can have a ripple effect.

“When people aren’t available to take care of folks, there are other problems that could creep in that are independent of COVID-19. Other illnesses become more severe. Things that could have been taken care of on an elective basis get canceled because offices are closed and maybe surgeries are canceled,” said Threlkeld.

Arkansas officials announced Tuesday that $50 million in American Rescue Plan funding will be going to help prepare hospitals for a surge in hospitalizations they expect over the next couple of weeks, with much of that money going to pay for “outside staff” to help care for patients.

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