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Staffing shortages, COVID cases impacting ability of local hospitals to provide care

By Bob Conrad
Published: Last Updated on

Local hospitals are light on details, but they are at or near capacity, and it’s impacting the ability to treat patients. The reason is not necessarily available bed space, but rather the ability to staff positions — nurses in particular.

“Saint Mary’s, as with all hospitals, are near capacity due to a combination of COVID-19 positive patients and seasonal fluctuation,” said Saint Mary’s Mark Reece. He did not respond to a clarifying question.

A Renown spokesperson said if you are experiencing coronavirus disease symptoms to call your doctor. Its parking garage was decommissioned earlier this year and can no longer hold overflow patients.

“Renown continues to be able to safely care for patients in its current health care settings and in their homes through remote patient monitoring technology,” spokesperson Caroline Ackerman said. “COVID-19 cases are still high and [emergency department], ICU and hospital bed capacity across Renown and the region continues to be near capacity. 

“To preserve Emergency and Acute care services and beds for those truly in acute need, we request that if you are experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19, please call your primary care provider.” Ackerman did not respond to follow-up questions.

“Your decision not to vaccinate is having unintended consequences for your community.”

A Washoe County Health District official called the situation concerning.

“It’s very concerning, and we are working with our hospital and EMS partners to ensure we help out with issues we can help out on,” Scott Oxarart, the health district spokesperson, said. “We’re aware that several hospitals in Washoe County are at or near capacity for staffed hospital beds, which the Nevada Hospital Association said was 86%.”

About half of ICU beds in Washoe County are occupied. Total hospitalizations are mirroring what the region saw a year ago when COVID-19 cases filled hospitals and Renown began treating patients in its garage.

Washoe County's daily COVID-19 hospitalizations reported on Sept. 14, 2021. Source: State of Nevada COVID-19 dashboard.
Washoe County’s daily COVID-19 hospitalizations reported on Sept. 14, 2021. Source: State of Nevada COVID-19 dashboard.

John Packham, associate dean at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, said the supply of nurses was a problem prior to the pandemic.

“I work with rural hospitals, and their ability to transfer to places like Reno and Las Vegas are now challenging, because that next level of care is just not as available right now,” he said. “You’ll be lucky if you can find another bed in Reno or Salt Lake.

“What I’m hearing is that some hospitals are … unable to staff just a general med surge, which is … the ripple effect of COVID patients,” he added.

Burnout plays a role, he said, and lab techs and nursing assistants are also in short supply. 

“We’re at a tough point that I didn’t think we’d be in five or six months ago when it looked like vaccines were gonna save the day,” Packham explained. “I don’t know what we’ll do if nurses start leaving the profession if … they’re mandated to have a vaccine and they don’t want to do that, or they’re justifiably burnt out.”

The unvaccinated are filling hospitals

Assistant Washoe County Manager Dave Solaro said today during a county commission meeting that, according to hospital CEOs, “a large majority of the cases within the hospital system are all unvaccinated.”

The Nevada Hospital Association also reported that most patients with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

“The overwhelming majority of these patients are unvaccinated, driving some hospitals to publish pleas within their neighborhoods and communities to get vaccinated,” the group reported on its website. “Simultaneously, with the rising COVID-19 hospitalizations in much of the state, hospitals and other healthcare entities are experiencing significant staffing shortages. 

“These shortages are resulting in downstream patient care effects, including ambulances delayed at hospitals, difficulties discharging or placing patients in a skilled nursing facility and delayed or canceled procedures.”

Solaro said that while vaccinations continue to increase in the county, the pace is slow. He blamed misinformation on social media and public commenters, such as at today’s commission meeting, for encouraging an anti-vaccine sentiment.

Packham said, however, appeals to do the right thing — getting vaccinated — are falling on deaf ears. 

“Your decision not to vaccinate is having unintended consequences for your community,” he said. “All of us have the potential of needing hospital care. People are still delivering babies and having heart attacks.”

The spread of COVID continues unabated, particularly the more virulent Delta variant. The Truckee Meadows Risk meter continues to show the risk of spread in the very high range, also back where it was last fall.

“It’s a lot quicker to get a vaccine than a test today,” Solaro told county commissioners.

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