Thomas Gallatin / August 25, 2021

Hospital Capacity Crisis Isn’t Just COVID

Lack of hospital staffing is creating a bigger issue for COVID care than the number of beds.

As the coronavirus Delta variant creates surges in infection and hospitalization numbers, a popular fear is that hospitals across the nation are once again in danger of being overwhelmed. It’s known as the hospital capacity crisis — the claim that medical centers are in danger of running out of room to deal with COVID patients.

While it’s certainly true that the uptick in COVID cases affects hospital capacity, there’s another issue that’s having a more direct and even longer-term impact on capacity — hospitals have been struggling with severe staffing shortages.

Staff availability will naturally impact the amount or quality of care patients can receive. The fewer the number of nurses and doctors, the fewer the number of patients a hospital can care for. The quantity of beds, while important, doesn’t provide a complete picture.

In fact, Politico observes: “Hospitals can respond by adding beds and ordering more protective gear. But they’re stuck fighting over the same finite pool of nurses, lab techs, nurse assistants and front desk workers, whose ranks have already been depleted by retirements and resignations.”

A recent survey of major hospitals “found that nursing workforce coverage was cited as the top (84 percent) COVID-19 challenge respondents still face, followed by clinical support staff coverage (60 percent).”

In fact, severe staffing shortages have impacted some hospitals to the point where even though they have beds available for COVID patients, they simply don’t have the staff to cover them — so the beds are left unused.

One of the great ironies of the COVID lockdown — supposedly intended to flatten the curve to prevent overwhelming hospitals — was that as the lockdowns drug on for months, hospitals were left without needed revenue streams from normal care and elective procedures. With that revenue dried up, many hospitals were forced to furlough staff. And reacquiring that lost staff has not been so easy.

Further complicating the issue is the push for vaccine mandates. The nation’s largest healthcare union is fighting against mandatory vaccines for healthcare workers. United Healthcare Workers East President George Gresham contended: “Whether there is a legal challenge that we can make, or whether it’s just a pure organizational challenge that we can make, we are not going to just give in. [Employees] have the right to make their decision about their own health.”

Put simply, the economic downturn caused by the prolonged lockdowns has much more to do with the ongoing problems of hospital capacity. Here is yet another example of how the solution has prolonged the problem.

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