The nation’s hospitals are gearing up for a third winter with the COVID virus, which is also expected to be the first winter with high levels of influenza and other respiratory illnesses. These illnesses have been lurking in the background for the past two years, but they are expected to explode this winter.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of flu cases is already on the rise in some locations of the United States. Even pediatricians say that the number of young patients with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and enterovirus infections is on the rise.
And even while the number of new COVID cases has been on the decline, tens of thousands of new instances are still being identified every single day.
The convergence of viruses is having an impact on health care systems, which are already struggling to cope with personnel shortages that were made worse by the pandemic.
“If you go around the nation and ask hospitals how busy they are, every single one of them will tell you: They’re busy,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an executive associate dean at the Emory University School of Medicine and Grady Health System in Atlanta.
According to Health System Tracker, healthcare professionals are resigning at a rate that is 23% higher than when the epidemic began, mirroring a broader national trend of employees leaving their jobs.
“Nurses were on the front line, and some of them burned out and quit,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Others that were in their 50s and 60s who maybe thought they’d be working for another five years took an early retirement.”
Dr. Bernard Camins, the medical director for infection control at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, has seen a comparable “mass exodus” of health care personnel who retired earlier than expected or switched to entirely different areas of employment.
Now, he said, “there’s a constant struggle to recruit new people.”
Because of staffing shortages, there is very little wiggle space to handle any further spikes in patients, regardless of whether they have COVID, the flu, or any other illness.
“There’s no excess capacity in hospitals,” del Rio said. “Anything that increases the number of patients is going to tip the scales.”
Hospital management are proud of the healthcare staff who have been able to maintain their composure and are prepared for the next phase of infectious disease.
Morale is “actually pretty good,” McDeavitt said. “We’ve moved on from early in the pandemic, wondering if we were going to get sick and potentially die.”
“I think those worries are alleviated,” McDeavitt said. “We know how to handle it now.”