‘All hands on deck’: Hospitals report hundreds of staff out with COVID

A doctor enters a room.
After donning proactive wear Dr. Jacob Lyons enters a negative pressure room to check on a COVID-19 patient last month at the St. Cloud Hospital. During the first week of the new year, hundreds of hospital workers around the state called in sick with COVID-19. The waterfall of absences is causing problems for hospital systems that are already stretched too thin.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2021

Dr. Hsieng Su found herself changing out hand sanitizers and bedding in the emergency room last week so the regular staff could get a break.

"We're in this together, and really all hands on deck," said Su, Allina Health's senior vice president and chief medical executive.

Volunteering is a necessity, said Su as large numbers of health staff call in sick with COVID-19 symptoms to a degree like never before in the pandemic. 

On average, more than 100 Allina staffers were out daily during the first five days of 2022. Some had confirmed COVID-19 cases, while others were awaiting test results. 

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"There is such a community spread, we are also finding that our staff are getting COVID from the community. So, we are facing a real labor crunch currently," said Su.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped slightly since the fall surge, but not enough to ease worsening staffing issues. Around the state, hospitals are reporting hundreds of absent employees due to the virus. 

“This is the most hard-pressed the health system has been since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm during a news briefing on Friday. “That’s why we’re concerned about these next few weeks, that it’s going to add even more stress.”

‘A constant scramble’

An estimated 90 percent of new COVID-19 cases are being driven by the omicron variant, according to state data. Omicron is the most contagious version of the virus to date and even fully vaccinated and boosted individuals are susceptible to infection — health care workers among them. 

To fill staffing gaps, Allina is hiring contract workers, providing bonuses and other incentives for people to work more hours. 

Many hospitals are also following new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that shorten the window health care workers need to quarantine if they have COVID-19, but are asymptomatic. 

High demand for testing — both over-the-counter tests and PCR tests done by providers and at state testing sites — is making staff shortages worse. Providers are waiting days to find out if they are positive for COVID, said Dr. Andrew Olson, director of Hospital Medicine at M Health Fairview.  

"It's a massive issue. And if you asked me, ‘What is the one thing that we could do today as a state, to get our hospitals running as well as they can and keep them going and keep our community safe?’ It's a rapid turnaround of high-quality, freely available, no barrier testing, no appointments," he said.

At Fairview, 11 percent of acute care staff are currently out sick. That’s up from between 3 to 5 percent in recent weeks, said Olson, who said the situation has created the most challenging labor shortage he's seen since the start of the pandemic. 

"Every shift we're sending somebody home who develops symptoms — or we're getting call-ins every day; meaning that it's just a constant scramble to staff what we have," he said.

In the last week, M Health Fairview has shuttered some urgent care clinics to redeploy workers to other parts of the system that need them more. Lab technicians have been temporarily reassigned. 

Back-to-back COVID waves

The wave of omicron-related illnesses is coming on top of an already unprecedented capacity crunch due to previous staff departures and a sustained rise in COVID-19 cases through the fall — one that's expected to get worse in coming weeks as omicron sickens more people.

For patients, Olson said labor shortages mean patients aren't getting optimal care. 

"It's not about beds. It's about people. I have enough beds, I can find beds. We just don't have enough people to care for them," he said.

Hospital systems in greater Minnesota are experiencing the same staffing issues. 

Within the Essentia Health system, which covers parts of northern Minnesota, 350 of 14,000 staff are out because of COVID-19 — a significant increase from the roughly 100 people who were out a few weeks ago.

Dr. Peter Henry, who is chief medical officer for Essentia's hospitals near Brainerd, Minn., said they've been shifting staff around to fill gaps, offering incentives so people will take on additional shifts and hiring traveling nurses. 

But he said the strategy is not sustainable. He said a much better strategy to relieve the strain on hospitals would be to get more people vaccinated.

"So why get the vaccine? The answer is because it keeps you off oxygen, out of the hospital, off a ventilator and prevents you from dying."