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‘We’re running out of options:’ Wisconsin hospitals seeing staffing shortages due to COVID-19 surge

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Patients hospitalized for treatment for COVID-19.

MADISON (WKOW) -- The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said Thursday more than 40 percent of Wisconsin hospitals expect to have critical staffing shortages within a week.

Some Madison hospitals are feeling the strain, too.

"We have way too many patients," Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health's Chief Quality Officer, said. "We have more patience in our hospital that we really are built to handle."

Pothof said staff getting sick is compounding the problem.

"It's actually shrinking the pool of people that we have to work," he said. "So when you have more patients to take care of and less staff able to do it, you run into a pretty tricky situation."

Not every hospital is in the same position. A spokesperson for SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital - Madison told 27 News the hospital is in a better position for staffing because the SSM Health system can reallocate resources as needed.

But UnityPoint Health - Meriter Hospital is facing the same staffing issues as UW Health.

"Staffing is definitely our biggest concern," hospital spokesperson Leah Huibregtse said in an email. "We are working to bring in more traveling nurses and have had some success, though they are in demand nationwide."

At the beginning of the pandemic, many healthcare workers traveled to New York City to help out, but Pothof said Wisconsin isn't seeing the same surge because there are so many other areas who also critically need help.

He said UW Health is having its staff work longer hours and more shifts to make up for the shortage, but he acknowledged it isn't a long-term solution.

"If I have nurses working three times as many shifts as they're supposed to work, that leads to error," he said. "That leads to burnout. That's really difficult."

So the hospital is looking for other ways to find more staff.

"During normal times, we wouldn't shut down primary care clinics to staff the hospital, but these aren't normal times," Pothof said.

But even that might not provide enough additional workers, so Pothof said UW Health is looking into asking recent retirees to come back and also asking state and federal medical volunteer programs for help.

However, he said those options present their own challenges. He said it often takes months to train new employees on procedures and computer systems that are integral to hospital operations, but no one has that kind of time now.

"If we get to the point where we need to bring people in emergently, that means everyone's working, and we don't have months to train these people," he said. "We worry about medical error, and medical error can lead to patient harm. That becomes a little bit of a less desirable option, but with the way things are going, it has to be on the table because someone there is probably better than no one there.”

Even with these emergency staffing plans, Pothof said if cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, eventually, health care workers will run out of options.

27 News asked Pothof how likely is is that hospitals in the area will be unable to take care of every patient needing help.

"I would like to tell you that it's unlikely, but that would be a lie," he said.

Pothof said health care workers are particularly concerned about a possible surge in hospitalizations following Thanksgiving.

"We're scared to death of this holiday because we know that if ... 70 percent of people follow our advice but 30 percent of people don't, that could be the tipping point for us," he said. "We don't have much more room right now. We're barely hanging on."

He said the only way to prevent that from happening is to see a decrease in cases and hospitalizations in the next few weeks.

"We're not trying to scare people," he said. "Reality is just scary right now."

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Caroline Dade

Reporter/Multimedia Journalist, 27 News

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