COVID Spikes Worsen Health Worker Shortages in Great Plains, Rocky Mountains | Healthiest Communities

COVID-19 cases are surging in rural places across the Mountain States and Midwest, and when it hits health care workers, ready reinforcements aren’t easy to find.

In Montana, pandemic-induced staffing shortages have shuttered a clinic in the state’s capital, led a northwestern regional hospital to ask employees exposed to COVID-19 to continue to work and emptied a health department 400 miles to the east.

“Just one more person out and we wouldn’t be able to keep the surgeries going,” said Dr. Shelly Harkins, chief medical officer of St. Peter’s Health in Helena, a city of roughly 32,000 where cases continue to spread. “When the virus is just all around you, it’s almost impossible to not be deemed a contact at some point. One case can take out a whole team of people in a blink of an eye.”

In North Dakota, where cases per resident are growing faster than any other state, hospitals may once again curtail elective surgeries and possibly seek government aid to hire more nurses if the situation gets worse, North Dakota Hospital Association President Tim Blasl said.

“How long can we run at this rate with the workforce that we have?” Blasl said. “You can have all the licensed beds you want, but if you don’t have anybody to staff those beds, it doesn’t do you any good.”

Photos: Daily Life, Disrupted

TOPSHOT - A passenger in an outfit (R) poses for a picture as a security guard wearing a facemask as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus stands nearby on a last century-style boat, featuring a theatrical drama set between the 1920s and 1930s in Wuhan, in Chinas central Hubei province on September 27, 2020. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

The northern Rocky Mountains, Great Plains and Upper Midwest are seeing the highest surge of COVID-19 cases in the nation, as some residents have ignored recommendations for curtailing the virus, such as wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings. Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin have recently ranked among the top 10 U.S. states in confirmed cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

Such coronavirus infections — and the quarantines that occur because of them — are exacerbating the health care worker shortage that existed in these states well before the pandemic. Unlike in the nation’s metropolitan hubs, these outbreaks are scattered across hundreds of miles. And even in these states’ biggest cities, the ranks of medical professionals are in short supply. Specialists and registered nurses are sometimes harder to track down than ventilators, N95 masks or hospital beds. Without enough care providers, patients may not be able to get the medical attention they need.

Hospitals have asked staffers to cover extra shifts and learn new skills. They have brought in temporary workers from other parts of the country and transferred some patients to less-crowded hospitals. But, at St. Peter’s Health, if the hospital’s one kidney doctor gets sick or is told to quarantine, Harkins doesn’t expect to find a backup.

“We make a point to not have excessive staff because we have an obligation to keep the cost of health care down for a community — we just don’t have a lot of slack in our rope,” Harkins said. “What we don’t account for is a mass exodus

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Rocky Mountain States Emerge as New Covid-19 Hotspot

In mid-July, Montana was far from the fast-moving Covid-19 outbreaks that were overwhelming other states, reporting about 150 new cases a day. It is now a national hot spot.

The coronavirus is triggering more than 900 cases a day in Montana, health officials say, driven in large part by people fed up with face masks, as well as a resurgence of weddings, parties and other social gatherings. The state, which has one of the highest rates of infection in the U.S., has surpassed 25,000 cases and 275 deaths.

“I think a lot of it is people got tired of not having their regular life,” said John Felton, the health officer in Yellowstone County, where officials say the number of hospital patients requiring intensive care now exceeds the county’s 41 ICU beds.

Montana and other Rocky Mountain states are the latest region to get swept up by a surge in Covid-19 cases, which are nearing or at peak levels in Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. New patients have left hospital beds in short supply, and state officials have renewed efforts to slow the spread.

So far, deaths from Covid-19 haven’t risen significantly across the region, but the wave of cases likely foreshadows an uptick similar to other outbreaks across the U.S., public-health officials said.

From September to October, there has been a big rise in new Covid-19 cases in several states, as well as a rise in hospitalizations resulting from the virus.

New cases vs. hospitalizations per 100,000

Note: Values are an average of the entire month.
Source: COVID Tracking
Project

In New Mexico, where new cases have shot up to more than 800 a day from 108 on Sept. 1, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said Tuesday that restaurants, bars and other businesses where people gather would have to close for two weeks if four or more of their workers test positive over 14 days.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, has directed the National Guard to help with contact tracing. New daily Covid-19 cases on Wednesday grew to 322 from 24 on Sept. 1.

More than 600 Idaho teachers called in sick Monday and Tuesday in the West Ada School District over what they say are unsafe working conditions, citing little room for social distancing in classrooms and some students ignoring mask-wearing rules in the Boise-area district. Over the past month, daily cases in Idaho have reached more than 900 a day from about 200.

“At the end of the day, we are just screaming the conditions they are having to work in are intolerable,” said Eric Thies, president of the West Ada Education Association, a teachers union.

A high school in Idaho Falls. Hundreds of Idaho teachers in another school district called in sick this week to protest what they say are unsafe working conditions.



Photo:

JOHN ROARK/Associated Press

In Utah, where new cases rose from 300 a day at the start of September to more than 1,300, a hospital in Salt Lake City

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