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Clark County hospitals searching for relief during omicron wave

Few reinforcements have been found for Las Vegas Valley hospitals, which like many across the country are facing crisis-level staffing shortages stemming from the omicron wave of COVID-19 infections, state and county officials said Wednesday.

A surge in COVID-19 infections has resulted in an increase in patients while also thinning the ranks of hospital personnel, many of whom are themselves out sick with the virus. With staffing an issue across many workplaces, finding reinforcements has proved problematic, Clark County Deputy Fire Chief Billy Samuels, the county’s emergency manager, said in an interview.

Working through the Nevada Hospital Association, hospitals across the state have formally requested 1,100 reinforcements for both medical and nonmedical positions to alleviate what the trade group has labeled a staffing crisis, Samuels said.

“We just don’t have 1,100 people sitting on a shelf that we can grab and fill those needs,” he said.

Samuels said he had spoken with security chiefs at Las Vegas hotel-casinos to see if their resorts could loan nonmedical workers to the hospitals to work in areas such as security or food service. He was told that they, too, are struggling with shortages and had no resources to offer.

Staffing crisis extended

The hospital association posted in its weekly update Wednesday that staffing remains in crisis status for the third consecutive week. Ninety-eight percent of all licensed beds in Clark County are now occupied, prompting the group to shift all-cause occupancy rates from the “watch” category to “warning.”

“Clark County hospitals have formally requested staffing assistance from the governor’s office for the first time since the inception of the pandemic,” the association said in its post.

“Many positions throughout (Southern Nevada) hospitals are unstaffed daily as personnel are sick or forced to isolate themselves. There is no current timeline for governmental assistance to arrive,” it said.

The association has worked with various entities to help alleviate the staffing crisis, representative Amy Shogren said in an email. “At this time, staffing reinforcements have not been allocated in Clark County,” or elsewhere in the state, she said.

The office of Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a news release Tuesday that the state was encouraging nursing students to become nurse apprentices in one move to address the shortage. It also said it was distributing mass emails encouraging volunteering with entities such as the Battle Born Medical Corps formed by the governor early in the pandemic.

Nathan Orme, a representative of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said that 15 corps volunteers are currently working at hospitals across the state.

“There are multiple facilities in Southern Nevada that are currently using Battle Born Medical Corps volunteers,” Orme said in an email. “Due to confidentiality requirements, we cannot release the details of which facilities are utilizing this team.”

The governor’s office said that the Battle Born Medical Corps in the past week had received more than 200 new applications from licensed medical personnel “interested in serving the health-care system during this difficult time.”

The need for personnel is immediate. Samuels said that officials were considering using members of the Nevada National Guard to fill in for nonmedical personnel at hospitals stretched thin. However, that would mean taking them away from COVID-19 testing sites that they are now staffing.

New test sites ease strain

Three to four weeks ago, the demand for testing exploded in the Las Vegas Valley as cases of COVID-19 climbed. Waits for testing appointments grew to a week at many sites, while waits at the county’s no-appointment mass drive-thru site grew to be hours long.

In response, the county, the Southern Nevada Health District and the state increased the number of sites, including opening two additional mass testing operations. There are now three such sites in the Las Vegas Valley: at Sam Boyd Stadium in the southeast valley, Texas Station in North Las Vegas and the Fiesta in Henderson.

The testing bottleneck is easing. A spot check Tuesday of 21 of the test sites listed on the health district’s website showed a handful with same day or next day appointments, and most with appointments available later in the week.

Opening new testing sites and expanding hours at existing ones also has taken some of the strain off area hospitals, whose emergency rooms have been flooded with people with mild symptoms — or none at all — seeking testing.

University Medical Center’s emergency departments “have seen a slight decrease in unnecessary visits from asymptomatic patients, helping our team prioritize care for community members who require treatment for their COVID-19 symptoms,” hospital representative Scott Kerbs said Wednesday in an email.

Moreover, UMC also has seen a significant decline in patients without symptoms visiting its Quick Care locations solely for testing, he said.

Kerbs noted, too, that UMC has experienced a noticeable decrease in employees testing positive for COVID-19 during the past week. “In addition, many employees who previously tested positive have returned to work after isolating at home for a minimum of five days from the onset of symptoms,” he said.

Hospital workers have been feeling the strain. The Service Employees International Union conducted a national survey of more than 1,500 health care workers with HCA Healthcare, including those at three hospitals in the Las Vegas Valley. Ninety percent of the workers surveyed at Sunrise, Southern Hills and MountainView hospitals said short staffing was compromising patient care, the union said in a news release this week.

“The high infection rate of omicron is making all of us worry about the ability to do our jobs while being significantly short-staffed,” said Sunrise hospital respiratory therapist Zavia Norman. “This is not sustainable.”

The hospital company denied that patient care is compromised.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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