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How are hospitals handling staffing challenges during a COVID-19 surge?

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A health care worker gives another a shoulder rub before they go back into the COVID-19 Unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston in July.

Health care workers at a COVID-19 unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston in July. Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images

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We’re in a COVID-19 surge: over a 100,000 new cases every day in the U.S. for more than a week.

Now we’re also seeing an all-time high of COVID-19 hospitalizations, with 61,964 on Tuesday.

Hospitals, doctors, nurses and the entire staff in many places are all struggling to meet the demand.

Back in the spring when COVID-19 hospitalizations were surging in a handful of cities, medical personnel from across the country packed up and traveled to hot spots to help. 

But now as cases surge to all-time highs in many states, “the problem is the country itself is almost one big hot spot,” said Dave Dillon, a spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association. In parts of Missouri, hospital beds are almost full.

“Our biggest issue currently is staffing,” Dillon said. “We have bed capacity, but beds are only as good as your ability to put the staffing resource beside them.”

Some hospitals are short-staffed because their own people are sick, or quarantining, or in some places there just wasn’t enough staff to begin with, said Cynthia Cox, vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation

“That’s particularly acute in rural areas where it’s just harder to attract the workforce that hospitals need,” she said.

Christine Petersen, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, said in her state, rural hospitals are sending patients to the already-strapped larger hospitals. So COVID-19 care at those facilities is partly provided by “people who are trained for other things, not specialist in these areas of pulmonary care, infectious diseases,” she said.

Getting reassigned worries Lisa Ford. She’s a nurse at hospital system affiliated with Washington University in St. Louis. Like many of her colleagues, she has a child at home whom she’s helping with remote learning.

“I feel like people are just — they’re tired. They’re worn down. It just feels relentless; it feels never-ending. It’s frustrating,” Ford said. 

Not to mention, cases are rising in Missouri

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