‘Sense of betrayal’
Unlike the surges of last winter and spring, which sent hospitals scrambling for beds and supplies, the biggest pain point for hospitals now is staffing.
In Mississippi, where 200 patients are parked in emergency departments waiting for available and staffed ICU beds, the state is facing Delta with 2,000 fewer registered nurses than it had during its winter surge.
Some have left because of stress and burnout. Others have taken higher-paying jobs with travel nursing companies. To stop the exodus, hospitals are offering better pay, easier schedules, and sign-on and stay-on bonuses.
Doctors say the incentives are nice, but they don’t help with the anguish and anger many feel after months of battling COVID.
“There’s a big sense of betrayal,” said Sarah Nafziger, MD, vice president of clinical support services at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. “Our staff and health care workers, in general, feel like we’ve been betrayed by the community.”
“We have a vaccine, which is the key to ending this pandemic and people just refuse to take it, and so I think we’re very frustrated. We feel that our communities have let us down by not taking advantage of the vaccine,” Dr. Nafziger said. “It’s just baffling to me and it’s broken my heart every single day.”
Dr. Nafziger said she met with several surgeons at UAB on Aug. 11 and began making decisions about which surgeries would need to be canceled the following week. “We’re talking about cancer surgery. We’re talking about heart surgery. We’re talking about things that are critical to people.”
Compounding the staffing problems, about half of hospital workers in Alabama are still unvaccinated. Dr. Williamson says they’re now starting to see these unvaccinated health care workers come down with COVID too. He says that will exacerbate their surge even further as health care workers become too sick to help care for patients and some will end up needing hospital beds themselves.
At the University of Mississippi Medical Center, 70 hospital employees and another 20 clinic employees are now being quarantined or have COVID, Dr. Jones said.
“The situation is bleak for Mississippi hospitals,” said Timothy Moore, president and CEO of the Mississippi Hospital Association. He said he doesn’t expect it to get better anytime soon.
Mississippi has more patients hospitalized now than at any other point in the pandemic, said Thomas Dobbs, MD, MPH, the state epidemiologist.
“If we look at the rapidity of this rise, it’s really kind of terrifying and awe-inspiring,” Dr. Dobbs said in a news conference Aug. 11.
Schools are just starting back, and, in many parts of the South, districts are operating under a patchwork of policies – some require masks, while others have made them voluntary. Physicians say they are bracing for what these half measures could mean for pediatric cases and community transmission.
The only sure way for people to help themselves and their hospitals and schools, experts said, is vaccination.
“State data show that in this latest COVID surge, 97% of new COVID-19 infections, 89% of hospitalizations, and 82% of deaths occur in unvaccinated residents,” Mr. Moore said.
“To relieve pressure on hospitals, we need Mississippians – even those who have previously had COVID – to get vaccinated and wear a mask in public. The Delta variant is highly contagious and we need to do all we can to stop the spread,” he said.
A version of this article first appeared on.