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Amid omicron COVID spike, Texas hospitals see staffing shortages accelerating

John C. Moritz
Austin American-Statesman

In the weeklong period that straddled the end of last year and the dawn of 2022, about 1,500 employees at one of Texas' leading treatment hospitals for COVID-19 tested positive for the virus, aggravating a staffing shortage amid yet another spike in the pandemic that has frayed the health care system for nearly two years.

"Hospital staffing is our most pressing issue, in terms of both physicians and clinical nursing staff," Texas Hospital Association spokeswoman Carrie Williams said. "The primary issue is staff out sick. Many others are in isolation or quarantine, are exhausted or had left to make more money with staffing agencies."

Front-line health care workers have been parrying with the byproducts of the pandemic nearly nonstop since March 2020. First, they faced a scarcity of personal protective gear to ward off infection from patients with the highly contagious coronavirus. In those early days, treatments were almost nonexistent and those sick in hospitals could not be visited by loved ones, much less caressed and comforted.

Just as vaccines and innovative new medicines gave rise to hope that COVID-19's worst days were in the rearview mirror, the spiraling cases linked to the omicron and the still swirling delta variants have driven theseven-day average of new cases in Texas over 31,000, That's higher than the winter and summer surges of 2021.

Staff shortages across the state

One of the rare bright spots of the present spike has been that hospitalization rates were not rising at the same rate as new COVID-19 cases. But coming out of the holiday season, that appears to be changing. Texas inpatient counts have doubled since Christmas Eve and topped 7,000 this week, about half of the late summer peak of nearly 14,000.

Accompanying the renewed rise in hospitalizations is a parallel upsurge in the number of hospital workers unavailable to provide patient care.

In Austin, Dell Children's Medical Center has seen an increase in the number of kids coming in for COVID-19, said Dr. Meena Iyer, the hospital's chief medical officer.

The number of cases has made it more difficult at the hospital, as has the number of staff members who are having to quarantine for five days because of an exposure to COVID-19 or a positive test after being screened.

Iyer said she expects the local COVID-19 situation to worsen in the next few weeks based on previous variant surges.

Austin Regional Clinic has had staffers who had to be out because of COVID-19 symptoms or the need to quarantine after an exposure. 

Last week, it processed 11,000 COVID-19 tests. At the heart of the delta variant spike, it was testing 6,000 to 7,000. A typical week would be 3,000 to 4,000 tests. 

"It's not that we don't have enough test kits available," said Dr. Anas Daghestani, CEO of Austin Regional Clinic. "It's not enough hours in the day, not enough staff."

Stefanie Asin, a Houston Methodist Hospital spokeswoman, said that hospital "had 1,500 employees, out of 27,000 total employees, test positive for COVID-19 in the last week.”

"With almost 600 COVID-19 inpatients today, our hospitals are certainly stressed," she said.

The hospital, which has one of the nation's largest COVID-19 genome monitoring operations and has analyzed the genomes of more than 60,000 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic's outbreak, is "managing both our COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients fine right now." But, Asin added, plans are in progress in case hospitalizations continue to rise and staffing shortages escalate.

"As the surge continues, we continue monitoring our beds and adjusting our elective surgeries every day, hospital by hospital,” Asin said.

Baylor Scott & White, the state's largest nonprofit health care provider that operates 52 hospitals and 800 other facilities in Texas, said it is also battling the staffing shortage.

"This latest COVID-19 spike is putting extraordinary pressure on our hospitals, our emergency departments and our health care professionals," the hospital system said in a statement. "The overwhelming majority of the patients we are treating for COVID-19 are unvaccinated, and the rising number of cases is discouraging."

Baylor Scott & White will be taking steps to plug any gaps in staffing and equipment for as long as needed, the system's statement said.

"Our COVID-19 staffing preparation efforts include continuously studying and forecasting our staffing levels and deploying and recruiting team members," the statement said. "Our staff are critical to our ability to continue responding to the pandemic, and we thank them for their continued dedication to serving our communities."

Exhausted health care workers

COVID-19 has contributed to the deaths of nearly 76,000 Texans, and the state has recorded more than 4.8 million cases of the virus to date, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The Texas Nurses Association has been sounding the alarm throughout the pandemic about what it said is "a mounting, overwhelming shortage of nurses" across the state. Cindy Zolnierek, the organization's chief executive officer who is also a registered nurse, said many in the profession are simply exhausted.

 "A lot of those that are getting sick, they're leaving their colleagues behind, and they feel for that because they're already short-staffed," Zolnierek said. "They've been in this marathon that doesn't end, and it's very, very challenging."

"You can shift nurses around, but there aren't more of them," she added.

Zolnierek said that hospitalization levels have remained comparatively low, but if adequate staffing is not available, patient care could suffer.

"The most important thing that every single person, every single Texan can do now is to make sure they're vaccinated," she said. "We have safe and effective vaccines available. They will help control the number of people that get severely sick and need to be hospitalized."

Statesman reporter Nicole Villalpando contributed to this article.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.