Hundreds of Nebraskans Couldn't Get Medical Care During Latest COVID Surge

March 29, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

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A healthcare worker at Bryan Health during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Health)

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New numbers show staffing shortages were the prominent reason hundreds of patients couldn’t get the care they needed during the COVID-19 omicron surge. In at least one case, a Nebraska hospital said a patient died waiting for a staffed hospital bed.

Hospital leaders said finding beds wasn’t necessarily the problem.

“It’s really been the staff that has been the issue, and we had a nursing shortage before the pandemic, and I think that the pandemic has really exacerbated that,” Ivan Mitchell said. He's the CEO of Great Plains Health in North Platte.

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The outside of Great Plains Health hospital in North Platte (Photo by Jackie Ourada, Nebraska Public Media News)
Ivan Mitchell
Great Plains Health CEO Ivan Mitchell (Photo courtesy of Great Plains Health, North Platte)

He said Nebraska’s staffing crisis meant denying patients the critical care they needed during those surges, sometimes, daily.

“I have a voicemail on my cell phone a CEO of one of the critical access hospitals around us that was begging us to take a patient they had a patient who was really just kind of tanking due to COVID, and they said they've called 20 different facilities three different states and couldn't get this patient anywhere," Mitchell said.

"The patient ended up passing away because no one had the ability to have the staff to take care of the patients.”

The hospital CEO said his system made those impossible decisions almost every day during the omicron surge, trying to save severely sick COVID-19 patients who may have had a fighting chance to survive with a higher level of care.

Great Plains Health had to deny 233 patients looking to transfer into its hospital between December 2021 and February 2022 – the height of the omicron surge in Nebraska.

“I don't know that the public really knows this. They hear about it, but I don't think people actually really think about it until it affects someone they know, like a family member or friend, that they're trying to get care for,” Mitchell said.

Across the state in Lincoln, Dawn Isaacs, Bryan Health’s Nursing Director, said that misunderstanding may come from how hospital capacity is reported and talked about.

Bryan Health's Director of Nursing Dawn Isaacs (Photo courtesy of Bryan Health)
Dawn Isaacs, Bryan Health Nursing Director. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Health)

“Sometimes, of course, the information that you look at might be a little bit deceptive,” Isaacs said.

Isaacs explained Bryan Health could say 15 percent of its hospital beds were not being used, but COVID-19 patients couldn’t simply be put in open beds in other departments, like the NICU, where babies are just starting to form their immune systems.

“We would never put medical patients there. It would be very, very rare [that] we could do something like that," Isaacs said.

"Or even think of our cancer floor. We don't have any empty beds there, but if we did, we wouldn’t put an infectious patient in a unit where patients are immunocompromised, so those factors really play into what we call patient placement," Isaacs said.

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A nurse at Bryan Hospital. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Health)

Between December and January, Bryan Health was about 95-percent full. On December 30th, the hospital recorded 582 patients – a record-breaking number of people and well over the 550 bed average. The hospital denied at least 245 patients between December and February.

Isaacs said before the pandemic, most patients were accepted right on the spot.

“Nowadays, they typically go on a waitlist if it’s someone that is within our state. We get a lot of calls from out of state as well. And that’s not to say that we don’t accept those patients, but it does certainly become more of a challenge when Arkansas and Oklahoma are calling us to accept their patients, and we already have a list of patients here,” Isaacs said.

Partial relief finally arrived February first, when the Department of Health and Human Services implemented its hospital decompression program. It helped hospitals move some lower-level care patients out of hospitals and into short-term care facilities.

“The bottleneck was long-term care patients who were waiting a bit in skilled nursing facilities, so the state finally did hear us,” Mike Hansen said.

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Columbus Community Hospital CEO Mike Hansen (Photo courtesy of Columbus Community Hospital)

He's the CEO of Columbus Community Hospital.

The average patient stay there averaged a little over two days. The hospital said many of the patients were sicker, and in return, staying longer.

“That has helped really get people in acute care beds into a skilled nursing bed much quicker, and that kind of relieved the bottleneck, so it has been much easier since then to be able to transfer patients more effectively," Hansen said.

Hansen said that didn’t relieve the staffing problem, though. The hospital CEO said many staff members were out sick in December and January with the more transmissible variant of COVID-19.

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A team of healthcare workers at Bryan Health (Photo courtesy of Bryan Health)

Back in North Platte, Mitchell said when staffing is continuously short, it leads to those dire situations of packed hospitals and eventually – denying people care.

“There is kind of a safe number to have your nurses care for patients and we've really pushed that limit here. And I know everyone else has as well," Mitchell said.

Each hospital said the healthcare system needs to closely examine Nebraska’s medical staffing shortfall to create permanent solutions – preferably sooner rather than later, considering a COVID-19 surge could be around the corner.

This is the first story to our 3-part series that looks at Nebraska’s healthcare staffing crisis, as well as possible solutions. Tomorrow, we examine how the shortage bleeds into nursing facilities.

Read part two here