Dec 17, 2021 - Health

Weight of COVID pushing health care workforce to breaking point

Illustration of a healthcare worker carrying a giant syringe
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

New waves of COVID infections are crashing into a health care system whose workers are at a breaking point — if not already past it.

Why it matters: Hospital workers have had little relief from COVID over the past two years. And that burned-out, dispirited workforce is again being overwhelmed by surges from Delta, while facing the specter of yet another wave from Omicron.

"We're facing a national emergency," said Rick Pollack, CEO of the American Hospital Association.

  • "Just think about it: when America shut down, our folks stepped up and they continued to do that," Pollack told Axios. "And for two years now, they've been going absolutely full throttle."
  • In Kentucky, officials say hospitals have been so overrun in recent months, there have been days hospitals haven't had the bandwidth to help incoming patients, or even find places to transfer them.
  • Describing one particularly tough day, one chief medical officer in the state told Bloomberg : “Five people died that day and that’s what saved us."

State of play: The sheer volume of work facing doctors and nurses is taxing enough, as is the length of time they've spent in crisis mode. But the problems go even deeper.

  • Many have struggled with the emotional weight of seeing so many patients become severely ill or die, as well as demoralization from knowing many of those deaths could have been prevented with vaccination.
  • As hospitals struggle to address overwork and fatigue, many have brought in travel nurses, who are sometimes paid two or three times more than staff nurses. That has led to hard feelings and high turnover.
  • There's also rising concern about the increased health risks workers are again facing with the Omicron variant.
  • And with some emergency departments and inpatient units at or near capacity, patients are growing angry over the backlogs.

What they're saying: "Patients are completely understandably frustrated and often angry. But that’s led to uncivil and, frankly, disrespectful behavior toward our staff, kind of like what’s being reported in airline passengers," said Frank McGeorge, who is an emergency medicine doctor at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and also a reporter for WDIV-TV.

  • "Everyone is doing their best in really draining circumstances and we’re pleading for a little kindness," McGeorge said.

The big picture: This is a problem around the globe. Earlier this week, the Telegraph reported some "traumatized NHS staff" in the U.K. said they wouldn't go back to COVID wards as cases began to surge from Omicron.

  • In a French hospital, Reuters reports morale is low and large numbers of workers are on sick leave or have quit.
  • Speaking about the "exhausted" health care workforce in Trinidad and Tobago, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh said the health system has been trying to rotate staff, give days off and provide psychological counseling. "All of that is not enough," Deyalsingh said, according to the Daily Express.

The bottom line: In the long run, Pollack said, the health care system needs more workers, which will require policy changes like loan forgiveness and new care models.

  • But the most immediate fix for hospitals' capacity issues would be to get everyone vaccinated and boosted, Pollack said. "The care in our hospitals is safe. But our ability to provide it is really threatened."
Go deeper