Pennsylvania's Hospital and Nursing Home Staffing Crises Worsened by COVID-19 Surge

Gov. Tom Wolf promises help next month

Pennsylvania's Hospital and Nursing Home Staffing Crises Worsened by COVID-19 Surge
Care giver visits with nursing home resident at a Quality Life Services facility in western Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association)
Beth Brelje

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are up significantly in Pennsylvania and many other states, according to numbers from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The surge in cases has reduced capacity in hospitals and long-term care facilities.

In Pennsylvania, COVID-related hospitalizations reached an all-time high this week with 7,488 cases on Jan.10. That is double the cases compared to Nov. 22 when there were 3,774 hospitalizations.

Last week, 84 percent of Pennsylvania’s hospital beds were occupied.

Currently, three percent of Pennsylvania hospitals have both their ICU and inpatient staffed beds at or above full capacity, the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania says.

"Hospitals across Pennsylvania are strained and many are at, or approaching capacity as they treat more patients while experiencing continued staffing challenges,” Liam Migdail, spokesman for the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania told The Epoch Times, adding that COVID cases are one of several factors filling hospitals. “There is higher demand for care due to seasonal illnesses and complications related to care being delayed earlier in the pandemic. This is all compounded by a staffing crisis that was a challenge even before the pandemic, but has significantly intensified over the past year as more clinicians and support staff leave their positions due to burnout and fatigue."

The staffing situation was further compromised when hospitals and long-term care facilities, threatened with losing vital federal Medicare/Medicaid dollars, followed President Joe Biden’s mandate to require all employees get vaccinated. Many who wouldn’t get vaccinated were fired.

The capacity problem is being compounded by the struggle to discharge patients from hospitals to long-term care facilities, says the Pennsylvania Health Care Association (PHCA), an advocacy group for long-term care facilities.

These are more than nursing homes for the elderly. Long-term facilities are also where patients go for rehabilitative services after trauma or major surgery, anyone who needs extended hospitalization, adults with disabilities, and anyone who needs round-the-clock care needs a long-term care facility.

But long-term care providers are facing immense staffing challenges preventing them from accepting new residents, Zach Shamberg, PHCA president and CEO said in a statement. PHCA raised this concern in October when the association sounded an alarm about diminishing access to long-term care facilities. At the time, it released survey results showing that many Pennsylvania nursing homes were so short-staffed that they could not take on more residents. Instead, patients waiting to leave the hospital were put on waiting lists and had to search for an opening, sometimes miles away from their families.

As COVID cases climb, the capacity problem gets worse, with patients searching for long-term care stuck in hospitals, taking up rooms needed by new patients.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health determines how many beds a long-term care facility can offer based on the number of staff. Currently, facilities must provide 2.7 hours of direct care per day for each resident, specifically from nursing staff. If a facility loses staff, it loses beds.

Help Coming Next Month

Governor Tom Wolf’s office put out a press release on Jan. 7, announcing the state is coordinating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to organize regional support sites for hospitals and long-term care facilities, plus “strike teams” to support hospitals facing staffing shortage.

These support sites will be available starting in February, the release said.

In an email, The Epoch Times asked the Pennsylvania Department of Health why it will take a month to address the staffing crises happening now, but the department did not respond.

Currently, the Pennsylvania National Guard has 110 service members working at some of Pennsylvania’s 1,900 long-term care facilities to help with staffing, according to a recent National Guard press release.

Seeking a solution to the overall staffing shortage, this week PHCA offered a “Care Capacity Crises Plan” to the Department of Health and members of the general assembly.

We understand the importance of a unified approach to overcome and combat the latest surge of health care needs as the COVID-19 pandemic continues," Shamberg said. "The entire health care continuum is enduring a monumental challenge, but even so, collectively—with health care experts, elected leaders, and regulatory agencies—we can develop and bring forth solutions to ensure Pennsylvania can prevail from this trying time. That is exactly the reason we developed and introduced a plan that will, with support, allow long-term care providers to do their part and carry out their mission: serving our commonwealth's most vulnerable residents."

The PHCA has requested more National Guard Members. It has asked the Department of Health to provide a comprehensive plan and requested $200 million in American Rescue Plan funds to be used as retention bonuses for long-term care facilities to keep the staff they have.

The plan also suggests that Pennsylvania coordinate with the federal government to increase Pennsylvania's allocation of monoclonal antibodies and develop a distribution plan

“The distribution of monoclonal antibodies to long-term care providers can help limit hospital stays and prevent severe illness among a vulnerable population,” the PHCA plan says.

There has been no public response to PHCA’s plan.

Beth Brelje is a national, investigative journalist covering politics, wrongdoing, and the stories of everyday people facing extraordinary circumstances. Send her your story ideas: