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Monday, August 15, 2022

A shrinking band of Southern nurses finds itself neck-deep in another Covid wave

Bobbie Anne Sison was on her way to work at the hospital just before dawn when she received a distressed phone call from one of her finest nurses, who informed her that her vehicle had overheated on Route 63 and she couldn’t make it to work. She slammed on the brakes, turned around, and rushed to collect her. Ms. Sison is a nursing manager at Pascagoula Hospital in Mississippi.

As of Sunday, 106 people with coronavirus were being treated at Singing River Health System, a county-owned network of three small hospitals along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. This represents an increase from the dozen or so patients who were being treated at the beginning of the month. With 40 percent of the Covid-19 testing in Pascagoula coming back positive and around 100 hospital personnel absent due to illness, Ms. Sison was attempting to keep her thoughts from turning to what lay ahead in the next days.

Even when the number of new cases reaches a zenith in the Northeast and Upper Midwest and then begins to fall, the nation’s hospitals are still dealing with a crushing flood of patients. According to the newest infection outbreak in Mississippi, almost all of the state’s acute-care hospitals are now at or near maximum capacity.

Pascagoula Hospital, the city’s sole acute-care health facility, has been forced to close a third of its beds due to a surge of resignations that has left 80 registered nursing positions available, pushing managers to close the hospital. Last week, every available bed had been filled, leading an alarming system-wide backup to take place. Patients with coronavirus in the intensive care unit who were healthy enough to be transferred to another unit were unable to do so because there was nowhere else to go. Several critically sick patients in the emergency room were also unable to be transported to the intensive care unit, where the level of treatment is much higher.

Lee Bond, the chief executive of Singing River, said the current spike was only worsening a disastrous labour shortage that state hospital executives and public health authorities warn would remain long after Omicron is no longer a threat to public health.

Even before the debut of Omicron, the nation’s frontline medical personnel were struggling to keep up with demand. They have become fatigued and numb as a result of successive waves of disease and death; roughly one in every five has quit the profession in the last two years. And they are enraged — at the patients who refuse to get vaccinated, at the hospital executives who refuse to spend the money necessary to maintain safe nurse-to-patient ratios, and at the political leaders who refer to them as “health care heroes” while opposing mask and vaccine mandates that could help stem the tide of new infections in the community.

Because of the labour scarcity, tiny, nonprofit safety-net hospitals like Singing River, where millions of Americans seek treatment, have been particularly hard hit by the situation. Even before the pandemic, they were unable to compete with the high pay offered by travel nurse agencies and big health systems, thus exacerbating the manpower shortage that was already threatening their capacity to deliver high-quality treatment. Travel nurses may earn more than $200 per hour, which is far more than the $30 per hour made by the majority of staff nurses in Mississippi.

Mississippi and other southern states’ unwillingness to participate in Medicaid expansion has intensified the financial burden on the state. According to the state economist, this would result in an increase of $600 million in federal money each year for Mississippi, as well as an increase of 11,000 new employment each year, the majority of which would be in health care.

Government leaders in Texas, including Gov. Tate Reeves and other Republican leaders who control the state’s government, have also rejected calls to use a significant portion of federal coronavirus relief funds to fund bonuses that could help reduce the number of health care workers who leave their jobs.

Kelly Cumbest, 45, a registered nurse who oversees patient care in the emergency room, said he had received just one application in the last several months for the 24 positions available in his department. “It’s not only Omicron that causes us concern,” he said. We are concerned that we do not have enough personnel to deal with heart attacks, strokes, and vehicle accidents, which is something that politicians and the general public do not seem to get.

Ms. Sison returned to her previous position three weeks later. Despite the tragedy, she remained with her coworkers because “they were there for me” and “I wasn’t going to abandon them at such a horrible time.”

Just at that moment, the familiar notes of Brahms’ lullaby started to play via an overhead speaker. It seemed as though every medical professional in the corridor had come to a complete standstill. The song commemorated the birth of a child at Pascagoula Hospital, which one lady described as “a rare moment of goodness.”

When they heard it, they were reminded of the days when the hospital played “Don’t Stop Believin'” every time a Covid patient left the facility. When everything seemed lost, the song provided a source of joy and optimism in an otherwise hopeless situation.

Nevertheless, this was before, when the majority of the staff at Pascagoula Hospital believed that science and self-sacrifice would ultimately prevail.

“We were certain that we would be able to defeat this infection,” Ms. Sison remarked, her voice falling off. “We don’t perform that song anymore,” said the band.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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