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Central Coast hospitals struggle with nurse shortages amid COVID-19 surge

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Central Coast hospital officials and state legislators alike are concerned about nursing shortages amid the current surge in COVID-19 cases.

DIRE SITUATION Marian Regional Medical Center ICU doctor Barry Feldman speaks at a Sept. 2 press conference about the impact the Delta variant is having on medical workers and the community. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • DIRE SITUATION Marian Regional Medical Center ICU doctor Barry Feldman speaks at a Sept. 2 press conference about the impact the Delta variant is having on medical workers and the community.

Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) and a group of fellow California state legislators signed a letter to state Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Mark Ghaly asking the state to let up on its nurse-to-patient ratio requirements as hospitals face record-breaking numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

"Over the past several weeks, as hospitalizations rise as a result of the Delta variant's spread, hospitals throughout the state have consistently faced a staffing shortage," the legislators wrote. "For example, at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in the city of San Luis Obispo, there are 53 staff vacancies—half of which are nursing vacancies. This shortage threatens to impede our hospital systems' ability to effectively treat patients in need of care."

According to the letter, California is the only state to set a required nurse-to-patient ratio. During the last big winter surge, the state temporarily waived the requirement for hospitals that were paying overtime to nurses, allowing hospitals to accept more patients. But during the recent surge, waivers are no longer allowed unless a hospital completes "an onerous, costly, and timely process," the letter states.

"If there's no waiver, what do you do as a hospital administrator?" Cunningham told New Times. "That is not a good position to put hospitals. They have to operate out of compliance, or they have to say to somebody's grandmother who has COVID, 'We're sorry, we can't find enough nurses, we're not going to be able to intake you.'"

The legislators asked the state to reinstate its prior policy granting staffing waivers where there's demonstrated need.

Local hospital officials said nursing shortages are an issue that precede the current surge, and it's only worsened.

"Everyone's experiencing shortages," Sue Andersen, president and CEO of Dignity Health's Marian Regional Medical Center, said at a Sept. 2 press conference held at the hospital. "Our staff is not immune from also catching COVID out in the community. ... We have a lot of people that are working a lot of extra hours and extra shifts to take care of our community."

Andersen said the hospital is making every effort to meet the state required nursing ratios.

Lompoc Valley Medical Center (LVMC) Senior Nursing Director Karen Kelly said there's always been a nursing shortage at her hospital.

"But right now, our census is high, and our COVID patients are starting to increase, so we're requiring even more nurses," Kelly said. "We try to get travel nurses, but they're super expensive right now and in high demand."

The hospital has increased its use of traveling nurses by at least 50 percent since COVID-19 started, LVMC Chief Nursing Officer Yvette Cope said. Even so, meeting state-required nurse-patient ratios has been "a shift-to-shift struggle."

"We have been able to maintain our nurse-patient ratios," Cope said. "We're having to pull from leadership to get into patient care."

From Cope's perspective, easing up on the state-required ratio doesn't get at the root of the issue.

"What I would like to see is more of a focus on ... these travel [nurse] agencies, and why the high costs?" Cope said. "If we were able to secure travelers at a decent cost, that would work. I'm a believer in nurse-patient ratios because it is better patient quality of care. I think we just need more nurses." Δ

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