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Overcrowding kills,” said Sameer Kadri, an intensive-care physician at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Kadri was the lead researcher on a landmark study that found early in the pandemic that Covid patients’ risk of dying rose where hospital staff was strained by high caseloads.

Among dangerous conditions caused by the staffing crisis, nurses point to a rise in hospital-acquired infections, including Covid; pressure injuries like bedsores; falls among patients; and delays in removing devices like catheters.

Many U.S. medical centers are so full that if a patient at a small community hospital needs to transfer to another facility to get lifesaving dialysis or advanced heart attack care, they may end up fatally stuck for lack of available beds, said Doug White, a professor of critical care at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. That’s what doctors call “dying in place” and it’s on the rise, he said.

Staff shortages affect all patients, not just those suffering with Covid symptoms. “Everyone, whether you have a heart attack or renal failure or gallbladder disease, you and the Covid patients are competing for the same scarce resources,” he said.

A poll released Thursday by the Service Employees International Union found an overwhelming majority among more than 1,500 health-care workers surveyed were concerned about the dangers of staffing shortages.

Among the front-line medical staffers at HCA Healthcare, the country’s largest for-profit chain of hospitals, 89% agreed that “short staffing at my hospital is compromising patient care,” the SEIU said in a press release.

Few reinforcements have been found for Las Vegas Valley hospitals, which like many across the country are facing crisis-level staffing shortages stemming from the omicron wave of COVID-19 infections, state and county officials said Wednesday.

Hospital workers have been feeling the strain. The Service Employees International Union conducted a national survey of more than 1,500 health care workers with HCA Healthcare, including those at three hospitals in the Las Vegas Valley. Ninety percent of the workers surveyed at Sunrise, Southern Hills and MountainView hospitals said short staffing was compromising patient care, the union said in a news release this week.

“The high infection rate of omicron is making all of us worry about the ability to do our jobs while being significantly short-staffed,” said Sunrise hospital respiratory therapist Zavia Norman. “This is not sustainable.”

The hospital company denied that patient care is compromised.

A recent survey conducted by the Service Employees International Union finds 89% of polled nurses and healthcare workers at HCA Healthcare felt being short-staffed at their hospital is “compromising patient care.” Nearly as many, 83%, reported that their floor or unit didn’t have the right level of staff. The findings were even more stark in California where 96% of respondents agreed that “short staffing at my hospital is compromising patient care.”

The survey conducted from December 13 to January 10 included responses from more than 1,500 SEIU nurses and healthcare workers at HCA hospitals in California, Florida, Missouri, Kansas, Nevada and Texas.

“Frontline nurses and healthcare workers have been demanding solutions to the short-staffing crisis at HCA (since) well before this pandemic,” said SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry in a statement forwarded by a representative. “They’ve spoken out for patients at the bargaining table and strike line and in their communities time and time again.”

As the pandemic tests hospital capacity, the union said 68% of SEIU nurses and healthcare workers polled indicated their hospital wasn’t prepared for the next Covid-19 surge and that patient care would be compromised. Many felt staff shortages were putting patients and clinicians in harm’s way. In all, 76% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I feel my facility’s leadership does not take adequate action to address the needs of frontline nurses or healthcare workers like myself.” Sixty-three percent reported that because of short staffing and burnout, they felt they had to find a new job or profession.

Some clinicians are speaking out publicly.

“As a respiratory therapist, I have seen firsthand the effects both the Delta and Omicron variant can have on the vaccinated and unvaccinated,” Zavia Norma at HCA-affiliated Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas, said in a statement provided by SEIU. “The high infection rate of Omicron is making all of us worry about the ability to do our jobs while being significantly short-staffed. This is not sustainable.”

Hospital staffing shortages are being reported nationwide and many health systems are being further challenged by staff illness due to Covid-19. Nearly all large hospitals continue to report difficult getting adequate nurse coverage, and clinical staff shortages remained even as hospitals saw patient volumes decrease, according to a November McKinsey & Company report. Meanwhile staff burnout and resignation is also rampant.

And SEIU leaders put the onus on health systems to urgently address staffing shortages.

“The question is, when are for-profit healthcare corporations like HCA going to finally put patients and healthcare workers first?” Henry said. “If not now, in the midst of this pandemic, then when?”

Staffing issues at hospitals around the country have worsened since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, putting patients in danger and leaving nurses burnt out and overworked.

Jannette Latunski, RN, who was employed until recently at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, California, told me that suboptimal staffing leads to poor outcomes for workers and patients alike.

“It's basically become an avalanche of unsafe and improperly staffed environments with very, very sick people,” Latunski said. “And the hospital has become very, very comfortable to keep piling on more and more and more demands onto the nursing staff.”

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